Developing the art of the sentence

If you have read Teach Like a Champion 2.0, you’ll be familiar with ‘The Art of the Sentence’.

The technique is described as follows:

Ask students to synthesize a complex idea in a single, well-crafted sentence. The discipline of having to make one sentence do all the work pushes students to use new syntactical forms.

Sentences are the simplest mentor texts and students with a command of effective sentence-building tend to produce the best writing. At my school, Dixons Kings Academy, we’ve been starting every lesson with The Art of the Sentence. It’s a simple strategy with a massive impact.

Improving thinking

A well-constructed sentence is about more than just literacy. The best sentences actually improve the quality of thinking. As Doug Lemov writes, “…helping students learn how to write increasingly complex, subtle, and nuanced sentences is teaching them to develop increasingly complex, subtle, and nuanced thoughts.”

Here is an example from a list of analytical sentences shared by Andy Tharby:

________is motivated not only by… but also by…

This construction enables-or forces- students to think in a specific way about the text. As students are presented with more and more of these sentence constructions, they will reach for just the right one when they want to think precisely about a concept.

AOS 1We asked staff to reflect on the habits of thinking we needed to develop in our students and then designed sentences to promote this. For example, in many subjects there is a need to consider and then express cause and effect. Which sentences might help students to develop this habit of thinking?

As a result of_______________, ______________________.

One inevitable consequence of___________________

____________________________ is a direct result of


AOS 3Building vocabulary

Precision of expression is crucial not just at the sentence level, but at the word level. Most words are learnt from context, not through the teaching of them, and a single encounter with a word will be unlikely to ensure full and rich knowledge. But repeated exposure to a range of carefully chosen words is an approach worth taking. (See Choosing which words to teach)

IncAOS 2reasing purposefulness

Every lesson starts with an artful sentence. While the sequence can be extended and sentences studied- as I do repeatedly- this can also be completed quickly at the start and the simple routine makes lesson starts more purposeful. I use mini whiteboards, some teachers use computers, some books and some just ask students to think of their response. The immediate habits of thinking and working set the tone for the rest of the lesson: no minute is wasted in the pursuit of learning. Teachers then transition into the teaching of the subject.

Our Director of Literacy took on the mammoth task of creating slides, trawling the internet for interesting and unusual images to use, and designing just the right sentences.

Initially, there were small issues that needed addressing. Some students were using the sentences without the precise meaning. For example, one student in my class wrote, “Ultimately, there is a cat and a bird.”  This follows the instructions of the task, but with no real understanding of why we should use that word. Also, with the wrong image /sentence combination, sentences don’t really work either. “On the surface” only works if there is something deeper that is not on the surface. The first time that students encounter a word such as “inevitable”, it probably has to be explained. The second time might require another explanation but students soon get it.

In one of my recent lessons, students were writing a paragraph comparing Helena from a Midsummer Night’s Dream with a typical Elizabethan woman and I saw this: “Helena differs from a typical Elizabethan woman in a number of ways respects.” This topic sentence construction had been used on a number of slides. Then, in another lesson, a student wrote: “Ultimately, Romeo is a tragic hero and is fated to die.” I hear the sentences in class discussion and see them in writing with increasing frequency.

Next steps

So far, we have used the same sentences across the school, but we will shift to making them more subject specific, allowing students to develop the vocabulary and precision of thought in a particular subject discipline. We will also increase the complexity of some of the sentences now that students are grasping the concept. At present, we have been constructing sentences based on images but next will be graphs, extracts from literature, historical sources.

Further reading:

Doug Lemov on The Art of the Sentence

David Didau on The Art of Beautifully Crafted Sentences

Chris Curtis’ Death to Sentence Stems! Long Live the Sentence Structures!

Andy Tharby’s Sentence Escalator

Old year’s resolutions

In March my external hard drive died. I couldn’t recover anything from it and I went through all of the stages of grief. I found the back up I had made- in 2011- and frantically searched for any of my new resources to no avail. But as I searched, I was struck by how many schemes of work had been abandoned and how many excellent resources remained unused. Measured in hours, I cannot think how long it took to create those resources, only for them to never be used again.

At this time of year, when we are thinking of resolutions and a new start, it’s important to remember that a lot of what we do is pretty good already and doesn’t necessarily need changing. We have to be careful not to invest time and energy in a bunch of things that appeal not because they are better, but because they are new. Even when they are worthwhile, we can always count the costs in the trail left behind of what we just stop doing to fit them in.

Why do things get abandoned? There are new books to study, new specifications to cover, new school agendas, new Ofsted agendas and original new ways of approaching content. We feel a need to stay current, fearful of missing out on the next innovation. We see another teacher sharing a picture of their classroom display and then that nagging sense we are not good enough kicks in so we drop everything and make a new display. I’ve contributed to this by blogging enthusiastically about what felt like great new ideas (progress investigators anyone?) before I had any indication if they were particularly effective.

Of course, some of those new things are better, and we still need to remain open to new ideas, but much of what will make us better in the new year, we’ve been doing already.

Consequently, I’m making some ‘old year’s resolutions’. Rather than listing all of the new things I’m going to do, I’m going to develop and refine what I’m already doing:

I will read the books I already own.

I can’t stop buying books, particularly ones on education. There are weeks when I’ve spent more time browsing for books than I’ve actually spent reading them. Truth be told, many of the books I’ve read are to all intents and purposes exactly the same book. There’s only so many times someone can tell me that the key to expertise is practice, for example. This abundance of books also means that there is little chance of them having too much of a deep influence on my practice, even when they are useful, because I quickly move on to the next one.

So I will stop buying new books in abundance in order to read those I haven’t touched. I will reread some of the books which were particularly useful but which have lost their impact because I’ve forgotten about them.

I will continue to focus on the basics

Calling them ‘basics’ is not quite the right word, but I’m talking here mainly about questioning, explanations and feedback. I have worked hard to improve the quality of my questioning this year and will continue to work on this, in particular ensuring that when I ask questions, everyone thinks. I am happy with the quality of my feedback but there is a nagging feeling that it isn’t having the desired effects, so there is further work to do. I won’t rip everything up, just refine what I do currently.

I will keep these at the top of my priority list because they can always be worked on. If I come across something interesting which is all shiny and new, I will consider whether it will take me away from these main things.

I will refine my classroom routines

Having started at a new school after working for over a decade at my previous school, the most notable challenges have been in the smaller aspects, the day to day routines that have changed. With a couple of exceptions, I teach double lessons, and it is a shift that I’m not sure I have completely nailed yet. It’s other things like new routines for the distribution and collection of homework. It’s even in where I keep the glues and how I set out my classroom. None of this is particularly exciting or interesting but it is exactly what I need to continue working on.

I’m not going to pretend that I won’t try some new things in 2015. If I think a new idea will improve my classroom practice then I’ll definitely give it a go and when I receive feedback from others, I’ll be open to it.

You could even argue that not doing so many new things is a new thing in itself.

Further reading:

My post on what to do when launching new ideas.

James Theobald on opportunity cost: Why is opportunity cost so important? Bo knows.

 And here is a link to a website where you can buy scratch and sniff cards for all your favourite poems. I MUST HAVE THESE!


Teacher workload: Can it be sustained?

Like many teachers, I filled in the DfE workload survey. I tried thinking about the external demands that increase teacher workloads but I quickly realised that most of the decisions around what teachers are expected to do comes from within the school.

It then forced me to reflect on the consequences on teacher workload of actions I take and advice I give. I have responsibility for CPD and deliver many training sessions to groups of staff and I need to ensure that my advice doesn’t increase teachers’ workload to unmanageable extents. Our school day is longer than most schools and teaching is a time consuming job anyway. I now try to approach much of my advice to colleagues with the question: Can it be sustained? Can it be sustained over a year and can it be sustained over a teaching career?

I think it is easy to forget just how challenging it is to have a full teaching load when you haven’t had one for a while. You have lots of marking, lots of planning and it can be quite intense to work all day with little time to take a breather. Many leaders don’t suffer the long term draining effects of this because with promotions come reduced teaching loads and it can be easy to downplay the experience of these who have worked these hours over a long period. It has been nearly a decade since I taught a full teaching load and by the end of my one quite busy day I am exhausted- many teachers have 5 of those days!

Whenever a new idea is pitched at staff and they are asked to all do it, we have to consider this context and the cost of the new initiative: Will this increase teachers’ workloads? The answer to this is usually ‘yes’ so we have to carefully consider what we must get rid of in order to accommodate this new amount of work. Otherwise, either teachers have to work harder or things won’t get done. Neither of these consequences are helpful.

Marking is probably the place where we can make our biggest wins with realistic expectations of what we expect from staff. I’ll try not to labour this point as I have already written about 300 blogs on feedback. Suffice to say that that we need to shine a spotlight on feedback and make sure that it is effective and done for the right reasons. It’s the thing that drains teachers’ time so we need to do whatever we can to reduce this time and make it more efficient. No teacher should be giving feedback that will remain unread by students in fear of ‘failing’ a book scrutiny. Mary Myatt writes sensibly about what Ofsted expect to see here.

@Cherrylkd shared a story in this blog about teachers being asked to hand in their planning a week in advance. The story reminded me of a friend who had to prepare detailed lesson plans for every lesson and where snap inspections took place to check. I cannot fathom why schools would place this unnecessary burden on their staff. We work hard enough without additional layers of work which hinder our effectiveness.

When it comes to planning lessons, the majority of my lessons are now pretty simple. It’s not often that you will see something that looks magnificently complex as you would have seen in my classroom in the past: hats and balloons and rhythmic gymnastics. But good lessons- even those deceptively simple ones- take a long time to plan properly. They take time to conceptualise and resource, so asking for a detailed lesson plan is just more work. Asking for it a week in advance is like asking me what I fancy for my tea next Tuesday- or asking me to write the recipe for what I will eat.

We also need to take a sensible approach to things like differentiation and understand that there are differences between what we can do and what it is reasonable to expect teachers to do. See these blogs from Andy Tharby and David Fawcett for ideas.

While Ofsted can be used negatively to increase teacher work load- ‘You need to do it because Ofsted say they want it’– we should also acknowledge that they have made it abundantly clear that there are some ridiculous things that have been done in their name, and they have attempted to quash these myths. (We shouldn’t let Ofsted off the hook completely as many of the myths originated from their reports and from inspectors moonlighting as trainers.)

There are times when I would encourage working hard for a shorter period. For example, I tend to mark books more intensely at the start of the year to a) inform my teaching and b) to set a standard. There are other times when a lot of initial effort reaps rewards e.g. that tough class where you will benefit from speaking to many of the parents early on. I also think that time should be invested in curriculum design which again saves time at a later date. None of these things can be sustained over the year.

Sometimes I get frustrated when I don’t get a reply to an email or when somebody misses a deadline. Yet I also have a massive to-do list of emails I haven’t responded to and deadlines that I too am struggling to make. My complaint is that I keep getting asked to do more things. Which means that the things I ask others to do are having the same effect. They are one thing in many things that teachers have been asked to do. James Theo write about this piecemeal accumulation of workload here.

There are some difficult questions posed when you consider the sustainability of different approaches. For example, how can you decide what to sacrifice? Will we need to stop doing some valuable things because of the burden on teacher workload? I know a number of things which I could do to make my teaching better but if these come at a cost to my well-being, are they truly worth it? Schools tend to live in a culture of short-termism and we can often justify intensive intervention (when this is normalised, is it intervention at all?) by saying it is ‘just this once’.

What I do know is that no child will benefit if they have an exhausted teacher in front of them.

TouchPaper Problem #7

Last week I was fortunate to attend the first TouchPaper Party. I was in group 7 and we had the following question to unpick:

TouchPaper Problem #7: What is the optimal number of times for a student to (a) read, (b) hear, or (c) say information aloud if they are to retain for 1, 3, & 6 month intervals?

After much discussion, we broke the problem in two. One group looked at what we need to do in the first place to ensure students learn new information and the other group – the one I was in- looked at how we can ensure it stays remembered.

A century of memory research tells us that students forget. Even when the teaching is good and we can say that students have learnt the material, unless we design opportunities for that information to be recalled, it is going to slowly disappear. For information to be retained at the specific intervals identified in the problem (and beyond) we need to revisit the content.

Our discussion led us to 3 main ideas: Spacing, Interleaving and Retrieval and I’ll look at each of them in turn.


Carpenter et al (2012) explain that “… performance on final tests of learning is improved if multiple study sessions are separated—i.e., ‘spaced’ apart— in time rather than massed in immediate succession” and “Studying information across two or more sessions that are separated (i.e., spaced apart or distributed) in time often produces better learning than spending the same amount of time studying the material in a single session.”

This is all very well, but determining the optimal spacing period is difficult. In one study of 1350 individuals and their recall of facts, Cepeda et al (2008) came up with an optimal gap of 1 day for a test in 7 days, 11 days for a test in 35 days, 21 for 70 and 21 for 350 days. The optimal gap being longer depending on the test delay. The results were slightly different for tests of recognition e.g. supplying multiple choice answers. Also, the results would clearly be different if we revisited the content multiple times.

This does seem to go a little way to answering one element of our Touchpaper question and is a helpful reference point even though the optimal gap for a given set of information in a given time frame is very difficult to be precise about. There is simply no formula suggesting that x sessions at gaps of y% of the test interval is the best way to remember.


Suppose you have X, Y and Z to study. Typically, the study of these would be X, X, X, Y, Y, Y, Z, Z, Z. This is ‘blocking’ and is how our curriculum is traditionally laid out. Each topic is mastered before moving on. Interleaving the topics would tend to look like: X,Y, Z, X, Y, Z, X, Y, Z.

Richland, Bjork, Finley & Linn (2005) show us that interleaving is more effective in the long term than studying something in a block. Bjork calls this a ‘desirable difficulty’ because it would seem counter intuitive and is harder to get right. Indeed, students may perform less well in the short term but retain the information over the long term. Even after students have benefitted, they still often feel as if they have not.

Rohrer (2012) suggests that the greatest benefit is in terms of discrimination. For example, a maths teacher who interleaves methods will find that students are more able to choose the correct method for completing a given problem. There is some of the effect here attributed to the effects of ‘spacing’ material but the effect exists still after taking this into account.

Our TouchPaper problem is about learning one set of information but teaching involves students remembering many pieces of information. Spacing is an important concept but our curriculum isn’t often designed in such a way as to make spacing manageable. Interleaving helps us to space content (thus the effects of spacing) plus we also get these additional benefits of interleaving. We could expect to see the benefits of interleaving at the ‘6 months’ interval of the TouchPaper question and further into the future.


Revisiting content isn’t just as straightforward as rereading or restudy. One important finding from our research was that testing is a way of improving learning, not just measuring it. So when we are talking about spacing intervals, one thing we should be doing at these intervals is testing!

This seems to fly in the face of common sense. Ask students and teachers and they would likely agree that studying is better than testing. Students certainly have the perception that testing isn’t as good as study. Simply rereading the material can create a sense of familiarity which increases the perception that this is better and that material is learnt. For teachers, we talk about how weighing the pig does not make it fatter. It is thought of as the ending point, not the means.

However, there are benefits associated with testing, most notably in retrieval. Roediger & Karpicke (2006) write: “Although restudying the passages exposed students to the entire set of information, testing permitted practice of the skill required on future tests and hence enhanced performance after a delay. If students retain information in their long term memory, they need to be able to access it, and testing may help to develop the cues and ‘retrieval routes’ to stored information.”

They conclude: “Frequent testing leads students to space their study efforts, permits them and their instructors to assess their knowledge on an ongoing basis, and—most important for present purposes—serves as a powerful mnemonic aid for future retention.”

The original TouchPaper question addresses reading, seeing and saying but perhaps we could add in ‘retrieving’ to that list?

Having laid out these ideas, and having barely scratched the surface of the original question, I will propose some points which now need addressing:

    • Teachers are not always curriculum designers and designing a course to cater for optimal learning gaps is difficult.
    • Much of the research base referred to above is on small-scale lists of facts and does this necessarily apply to larger bodies of knowledge and the schemata that underpin our subjects?
    • Does interleaving work better for some subjects than others?
    • What form should an interim test take to maximise retrieval?
    • How do we decide on the optimal spacing gap?
    • A classroom context is different to a research context. Can these research findings be transferred into classroom practice?

On the day, we concluded with the following simple recommendations:

Distribute study of content across multiple sessions rather than a massed session.

Make spacing manageable by weaving numerous topics together throughout the year rather than blocking topics discretely.

Quiz pupils regularly on previous content as the most effective way of retaining it.

A final point. The conversations, discussions and even disagreements during the course of the TouchPaper party helped shape ideas better than any CPD I’ve been involved with. Presentations from other groups contained many insights that have inspired a lot of thinking this week. It felt great to be a part of this occasion and I look forward to reading more blogs and seeing how things develop.

Some useful reading:

Using Spacing to Enhance Diverse Forms of Learning

Spacing Effects in Learning

Why Interleaving Enhances Inductive Learning

Interleaving Helps Students Distinguish Among Similar Concepts

Active Retrieval Promotes Meaningful Learning

Taking Memory Tests Improves Long Term Retention


Removing the cues

Stabilisers helped me to learn how to ride a bike. But until I took the stabilisers off, I couldn’t say that I was able to ride a bike. I have been considering the role of classroom ‘stabilisers’ and how in some cases we might be keeping them on for too long. These stabilisers- or cues- take different forms, from displays to thesauruses and the way that we inflect our voice when we say something like, ‘Is that a simile or a metaphor?’ With too much of these, students become very good at recognising, but not so good at recalling.

We can think of students’ knowledge as appearing on a continuum as follows:

subconscious understanding > familiarity > recognition > recall with a cue > recall.

(paraphrased from Memory: A Very Short Introduction)

Our job is to shift students’ knowledge along that continuum. If they cannot get to the ‘recall’ part, then do they know it at all? Much of the time we keep students at the ‘cues’ stage, where they can perform pretty well in a lesson but without actually being able to do the thing that we want them to do or remember the thing we want them to remember in the long term.

With too many cues, students are just using ‘maintenance rehearsal’ i.e. just learning something enough to get through a lesson or a task. With this, there is a danger that nothing stays in long term memory as the deep thinking required for this to happen is not present. Our ultimate job as teachers is to encode the knowledge, ensure it is stored, then put students in a position where they can retrieve the knowledge without needing our cues.

Interestingly, the act of retrieval itself helps to make things stick and allows students to create their own cues: “Each act of retrieval alters the diagnostic value of retrieval cues and improves one’s ability to retrieve knowledge again in the future.” (Karpicke, 2012)

Bearing all this in mind, I have been considering some of my current practice and implications for change:


feb2013 065This is one of my displays, showing a range of connectives. It is helpful to refer to but now I have a concern that the display doesn’t help students in the way I want it to. Students are never asked to recall the connectives if they are in plain sight. Recently, I have been removing connectives and asking students to recall the missing one. I must confess that I cannot make up my mind whether this display is a help or a hindrance. Advice is welcome.


When we provide feedback we often provide prompts or directions for next steps. We could design even better feedback which requires a follow up activity some time afterwards where students are asked to recall. For example, we might give students an exercise on homophones which explains the rules and asks students to identify (i.e. recognise) which homophones have been used incorrectly in a range of sentences. One week later, we might ask them to write their own sentences or explain the rules of homophones themselves- asking them to recall. This is not something I currently do. I ask students to reflect on whether they meet their target but not by asking them to recall. I’m going to experiment with this form of follow up retrieval homework over the next term.


For students to be able to use a range of vocabulary expertly, we need to shift it from that zone of recognition- they understand it when they read it- to it being part of their regularly used spoken and written vocabulary. Spending too much time searching for the right word in a thesaurus will not have that effect. Displays with key words will be helpful to a point but with no guarantee students will recall them in the future. We know that students need multiple exposures to words in different contexts before they will be readily recalled and used. See this post for some further thoughts on vocabulary instruction.


I think literacy mats or similar can play a part in the classroom. I can see that they might be beneficial for students writing at length in other subjects but I have mixed feelings about them in English. Much like the connectives on the display above, by giving students a mat with, for example, all the punctuation they need to use for a certain level, are we in fact hindering them over the long term? The mats need to be taken away at some point and I would argue that they should be taken away completely. The cognitive load produced by a learning mat can be overwhelming too. Students spend so much time looking at a number of things that they have to include that they lose sight of what they have to do.

I will be using ‘mentor mats’ this half term. These are still a form of cue but consist of mentor texts for study with some elements highlighted for closer inspection. The cognitive load is reduced. There are still cues but these are the isolated areas for study in the unit, rather than a checklist of things to include. Because these cues are in the form of model sentences, they require more thinking than ‘You should include x’. Here is the text from a mentor mat to get the idea.

Curriculum Design

We should design curricula with the opportunities for students to encounter the material they need over and over again, removing the cues and increasing the amount to be recalled. This means that we might teach a concept for the first time and provide all of the supports and then revisit it later without them. For example, in a year 7 scheme of work I have just designed, students will write about The Kraken. Tennyson uses personification in the poem and I want students to be able to comment on it. Therefore, several weeks before, at the start of the scheme, students are taught about personification, encounter the technique later in a short story, revisit it in another poem, The Second Coming, and then read The Kraken. At this point, we hope students can recall the technique unprompted.

This is not a post arguing that cues and scaffolds and supports are not necessary- they play an important role in the learning process. Sometimes it is only repetition of certain cues that force things into long term memory. For example, the C, B, A, mnemonic was important for me to recall the pedals when learning to drive. This cue was never ‘removed’, it just became unnecessary after a point.

If we wish to isolate a skill for practice, we may also provide support on other aspects. For example, when I am looking at sentence structure, I may well offer model sentences and example sentence starts. When I want students who struggle with extended writing to comment on a text, I will often provide scaffolds for support. However, this is always with an end in mind, leading students towards the place where they will be able to do this without the prompts.

Further reading:

David Didau: Deliberately difficult – why it’s better to make learning harder – essential reading on ‘desirable difficulties’.

David Fawcett: Can I be that little better at…using cognitive science/psychology/neurology to plan learning – a must read exploration of key principles of cognitive science.

Stephen Cavadino: Why calculators should be banned (and for balance- a counter argument)

Ofsted outstanding lesson examples

In the Ofsted Annual Report, several examples were given of ‘outstanding lessons’:

In 2012/13, inspectors saw many different kinds of outstanding teaching, although nearly all shared the common characteristics of high expectations, detailed subject knowledge, good and attentive behaviour and an unremitting focus on what children were expected to learn.

Now, just because Ofsted say something, it doesn’t mean that we should suddenly see that as the right way to teach (but I would hope nobody would disagree with the points above). Nor should we assume that all inspectors will be singing from the same hymnsheet. After all, judging lessons is still a subjective business. However, as teachers we cannot ignore that Ofsted’s agenda does have an impact on schools.

I was particularly interested in the two English lessons described. These lessons have been chosen specifically to indicate best practice, so we can learn much about Ofsted’s vision of outstanding teaching from them. There are some interesting points addressed which contradict received wisdom about Ofsted. Here are the lessons, with the phrases I wish to concentrate on in blue:

Lesson 1: Year 11 English students were studying J.B. Priestley’s ‘An Inspector Calls’. Students listened attentively and quietly as the teacher opened the lesson by explaining key features of evaluative writing. Her talk included an excellent example of an evaluative sentence, and students were challenged to come up with examples of their own. Following this, students were set to work on exploring the text, and during their evaluative writing the teacher cross-examined individuals, using searching questions to provoke a deeper level of knowledge and understanding. The work set had been meticulously planned and each student was mindful of their target grades and knew what was expected of them. Although this was a tightly planned lesson, the teacher responded flexibly to students’ questions, allowing the lesson’s ‘direction of travel’ to shift so that she could fill gaps in the students’ knowledge and understanding.

Lesson 2: In a Year 10 English lesson on Steinbeck’s ‘Of Mice and Men’, the teacher kept the lesson format simple and allowed students, through high quality debate and note-taking, to develop considerable proficiency in annotating text with detailed and insightful textual analysis. The students worked doggedly, and committedly, to improve their knowledge and understanding. As a result, they were informed and knowledgeable about the different dimensions of the character of Curley’s wife, and at all times they closely referenced the text when making their observations. At the heart of this successful learning was an experienced and expert teacher, who motivated the students well and ensured that they were fully prepared for a subsequent writing task.

My thoughts:

The teacher opened the lesson by explaining key features of evaluative writing.

From this, we can be clear that teacher explanations are not frowned upon. Ofsted pointedly use the phrase ‘Her talk’ and I feel this is indicating that teachers can begin lessons with explanations without fear of a negative judgement. Pupils ‘listened attentively’ and ‘students were challenged to come up with examples of their own’ so this is not described as passive learning. There are many examples in Ofsted reports where ‘teacher talk’ is criticised but I feel that the report is at pains to clarify that ‘inspectors will not look for a preferred methodology’.

In the Science lesson described in the report, I also think the phrase ‘The teacher led the pupils…’ (my emphasis) is included in the report deliberately. The phrase ‘Teacher led’ is often used as a criticism but in this case the teacher is leading students towards deep learning. The lesson is punctuated by ‘short, sharp direct inputs and a series of challenges set for pupils,’ so once again this is not talking at the students. In an example Year 3 lesson, ‘the pupils listened intently as the teacher recapped previous learning, using a story to prompt the class to identify examples and justify them.’ There is a real sense – to me at least- that these examples exist to reinforce the point that we can and should teach how we want. We need not be scared of explaining, discussing, modelling and asking ‘searching questions’.

Allowing the lesson’s ‘direction of travel’ to shift…

In the first English example, the teacher is praised for a ‘meticulously planned’ lesson. However, when the lesson needs to be adapted, that is also praised. There were ‘several…mistakes’ made by students in a Maths lesson but the teacher had anticipated and addressed them. When you understand that there were many, many outstanding Maths lessons observed, for them to single out one where many mistakes were made is significant.

It is important to acknowledge that a lesson where every single student ‘gets it’ straight away is a) not typical and b) probably not challenging enough. The teacher’s job is to address misconceptions and it is their skill to identify and intervene appropriately. The more Ofsted repeat this, the fewer teachers we will see wanting the ground to swallow them up when things don’t go to plan.

Knowledge and Understanding

In both English lesson examples, they use the above phrase and ‘key scientific knowledge’, ‘thorough knowledge’ and ‘knowledge’ itself appear throughout the lesson examples. It seems that ‘knowledge’ is (quite rightly) valued by Ofsted and this reflects the changed wording of the September 2013 Inspection handbook which introduced the phrase ‘growth in students’ knowledge’. (See Heather Leatt’s handy guide to changes for September 2013 here)

The teacher kept the lesson format simple

I think this point is very, very important, especially when placed against the checklist of ideas Ofsted provide earlier in the report. The report mentions the ‘Moving English Forward’ report from March 2012 and I was struck by just how much the annual report echoed findings presented in that earlier document.

Both reports refer to myths which Ofsted wish to point out:

The quality of pupils’ learning was hampered in weaker lessons by a number of ‘myths’ about what makes a good lesson. The factors that most commonly limited learning included: an excessive pace; an overloading of activities; inflexible planning; and limited time for pupils to work independently.

These points can be cross-referenced with a bad practice example from the ‘Moving English Forward’ report:

The lesson involved a Year 9 class working on techniques of persuasive writing. The lesson was planned in detail. The first phase involved an explanation of the learning objectives and a starter activity where students worked in groups to complete a card-sort activity. In the next phase of the lesson, students used a grid to identify persuasive devices on mini whiteboards. The teacher then took them quickly through the criteria for assessment at Levels 5–7 and gave students examples of extracts from two essays on capital punishment. Students were asked to choose the more effective piece, linking it to the assessment criteria. They were then asked to produce at least one paragraph of writing on the topic of capital punishment. In the final part of the lesson, students were asked to peer-mark two other students‟ work, then to look at and review their own work and check the comments. One further activity was introduced before students were asked to say what they had learnt in the lesson. The lesson closed with a final activity where students revised persuasive techniques on the board.

This final example contrasts with the two earlier lessons. Whoever we blame for the encouragement of the type of lesson described above, it is positive that Ofsted are addressing the problems.

How will this affect classroom practice? Well, in truth it shouldn’t. We should go on teaching in the way we feel is right regardless of Ofsted. However, it is my own experience that the lesson described above is commonplace in observations and I say that because it is a typical lesson from my classroom as recently as a year or two ago. I have advocated this kind of lesson because I firmly believed that it would be praised by Ofsted. I still find observations to be a bit of a mind reading game which depend on who is observing you. I admit too that I have encouraged the flurry of progress checking activities which Ofsted say they would never advocate.

What is pleasing is that the examples of outstanding practice given above are typical lessons in my classroom and in the classrooms of my colleagues. The Ofsted report is a reassuring reminder that we need not abandon what we know is right and do day-in-day-out when Ofsted come calling.



Behaviour- 3 things you can control

I write this post as much as a reminder to myself after a few challenging lessons as it is advice to others.

There is nothing low level about lessons where you cannot talk without interruption and low level disruption is one of the most harmful things in our schools. When you have that class, you can feel completely overwhelmed and no matter what you try, nothing seems to work. You receive advice like ‘plan well and behaviour takes care of itself’ but that isn’t a helpful comment to hear when you are a hard working professional, especially if the implication is ‘plan fun lessons and they will behave’. There are all sorts of effective behaviour management strategies to de-escalate- and I swear by some- but they mainly work on individual students and are no use if the class just won’t listen.

Some things are not under your control: the state of mind students are in when they arrive in the classroom, school behaviour systems, the time of the day etc. You need to take comfort in the fact that there are some things that are very much under your control. Focusing on these things will help you improve the climate in your classroom and will allow you to remain calm, knowing that the behaviour will improve.

The seating plan

You decide where students sit. The simple act of placing students in a seating plan indicates that you are in charge. The symbolic aspect is important, but there are obviously far more benefits.

Most low level disruption is caused by chatter or students looking at each other. You should identify combinations that you don’t want and separate those students. Place them as far away from each other as you can possibly get away with. Even when they are far apart, check for eye-lines. Sit down in your classroom and identify where your ‘blind spots’ are. I have computers in my room which help me to block students off but which also create blind spots I need to be aware of. Surround your most challenging student with positive peers. Do whatever you can and insist students follow it.

You should see a seating plan as a constant work in progress. If it doesn’t work, change it. Swap students around. If you feel at any point it needs changing, then change it. Students complain and will always try to sit where they want to. Be resolute and insistent- it doesn’t mean that you can’t move someone if they speak to you at an appropriate moment and explain a situation you were not aware of e.g. a previous incident of bullying.

The phone call home

I have learnt that 99% of parents are incredibly supportive. They want exactly the same thing for their son/ daughter as you do. A phone call and a quick conversation can often be the only thing that is needed to keep them on track.

You can find out things that help too. Once, I had a challenging student who I could barely get into the classroom. I found out from his mother that he wanted to be a zookeeper and from the moment that I talked about animals with him, he was a model student.

Changing the atmosphere of a class isn’t just about phoning the parents of the students who display the worst behaviour. You should make positive calls to the students who are doing the right things. You do this because they deserve it, because it’ll make you feel happier and because it will keep them on your side. There are a number of students who will get one or two warnings in your class but never a detention. Phone their parents too because they are ruining your lesson every time it happens.

If you are ever greeted with hostility, just keep the conversation about the specific behaviour displayed in the lesson. It isn’t an attack on the student, it isn’t a comment on them as a parent- it is a specific behaviour that is the problem. Don’t be defensive- you are making the call because you care. If you think that the conversation may be hostile, make it with your head of department present (or another more senior member of staff)and prepare responses to negative comments. For example, ‘What is he going to need R.E. for?’ or ‘She only misbehaves in Maths so it must be a personality clash.’

Remember that this all part of building teacher reputation. You want students to know that you will phone home. An initial flurry of calls home can have the required effect and you may never need to make a negative call again.


Books don’t answer back. Writing doesn’t chew. You can give feedback to students without any arguments and you should place marking the books of your most challenging classes at the top of your list.

Obviously, when you have a challenging class, the conditions under which feedback is received may be difficult to manage. But when you are struggling to get the attention of the class, feedback in books sends the signal that they matter to you. Despite the behaviour that they have displayed, you will continue making them your priority. I find that most pupils appreciate this and slowly but surely they come on board.

When the books of your most challenging classes find their way to ther bottom of your to-do list, they can end up looking pretty awful: graffiti, dog ears, pages ripped out. Marking books means that you can get on top of these things. If you allow books to get this way, it is another subtle signal that basic expectations don’t matter.


I am not suggesting that there are not wider issues in play. Everyone in a school has a part to play and we do need to think carefully about our lessons and reflect on our own practice. We must de-escalate using language and movement and we must escalate using the behaviour system. But when those things are not having an effect, we need to keep fighting the battles that are ours to win.



‘What students think about is what they will remember.’ Daniel Willingham

I had a lesson this week which seemed to be successful: students worked hard, produced lots of work and some great poetry. When I reflected on exactly what they had learnt, I realised that they had no real understanding of what a sonnet was. It wasn’t exactly a lesson wasted, but the fact was that they had barely concentrated on the main point.

In Visible Learning and the Science of How We Learn, Hattie and Yates state that “…learning occurs effectively once the mind responds to a meaningful experience through making a meaningful response.” Lessons must be constructed around the thinking that we want to take place, otherwise they don’t learn anything. In the example above, I wanted the thinking to be about the sonnet form, but students actually thought about the content of their poems.

Thinking deeply about things causes learning, so how do we ensure that students spend time thinking about the things we want them to think about? Here are some ideas for what- and what not- to do.


Dylan Wiliam makes the point that ‘Feedback should cause thinking’. The best feedback makes students think deeply about what they have to do next. A bad example is in one of my previous blogs on feedback. I suggested ‘coded feedback’ as a way of getting students to interact with their feedback- feedback is written in a code they have to crack or in a foreign language they have to translate. In fact, what they will do with that is think about the coding system for the majority of the time and then think about the feedback for just a tiny bit. We spend so much time giving feedback but if they don’t actively think about it they will not really improve. So when we give students feedback it needs to ensure that they think, and we need to give them time to do so. This post on making feedback stick from David Fawcett is particularly insightful on this.

Elaborate activities

I created an amazing lesson once when studying poetry. I split the class into groups, gave them some 1 pence pieces and some ideas on the poem. They could trade ideas, buy some thoughts from me, come up with their own ideas. A colleague walked by the room and thought it was fantastic. I had a real sense of achievement. But…by the end of the lesson, one student had all the coppers and only two or three students had annotated their poem. I think some had not even read it. We tried to write about the poem in the next lesson but of course they had not thought about it for long enough to provide the responses that I had hoped- they had been thinking about the elaborate task. I had spent so much time on making it exciting and interesting that I was blind to the fact that they would not really learn about the poem. Perhaps it was a fear that the subject was not exciting in itself. Now I realise that poetry is exciting and studying it in depth is much more interesting and too much on top of that only ensures that they think less about poetry.

Irrelevant activities

I think that lessons can often contain quite a lot of filler. When we plan lessons, it can be tempting to try to fill time to make things last for an hour so that everything fits together but learning is messier and can’t fit neatly into organised chunks. Lesson design benefits from ruthless editing. Ask what students are learning at each stage, what they are thinking about, what they might end up thinking about instead(e.g. they might be thinking about getting the bubble writing just right on a poster). If you ask those questions and can’t justify the task then- CUT!


Whichever techniques you wish to use- lollipop sticks, random name generators or just picking yourself- you need to make sure all students are thinking when you ask a question. I know how easy it is to ‘hide’ in lessons because I used to do it myself. (Don’t put your hand up and everything will be fine.) Good teachers use questioning to ensure that every student thinks. Students can’t be let off the hook either. Stay with them even if they say ‘I don’t know’. Expect them to think.

Teacher talk

I am an advocate of teacher talk and will argue with anyone who suggests that I shouldn’t do it. It can also be one of the worst things that goes on in classrooms. Teachers are experts, so why shouldn’t they speak to the class? However, the best teacher talk is designed to make students think. Highly skilled questioning, modelling, explanations which tell wonderful narratives are all ways of ensuring students think. I learn a great deal from watching and listening to presentations from speakers who make me think.

Group work

If you are putting students into groups for a task, ask yourself whether every student in the group is going to think about what you want them to think about. If they won’t, then don’t do group work.


One of the trickiest things with new technology is that students will spend quite a bit of time learning how it all works and trying things out. I used a google doc recently for collaborative writing in the classroom which was an unmitigated disaster if I’m honest. The time spent getting used to how it worked, the increasingly ridiculous user names, the messages, the rogue deleter, the accidental deleters, then the blocking of the site. Did the class think about Dulce Et Decorum Est? Nope.

This doesn’t mean that we should just give up. It does mean that if something is worth using then it needs to be used routinely so that the novelty wears off and the benefits kick in. If there is going to be a lot of time written off to bed things in then it isn’t worth it.

Cognitive load

If students have to think about too many things, they will become overloaded and won’t really think deeply about anything at all. Too many new ideas and they are overburdened, too many new words and they cannot comprehend the big ideas. As teachers, we need to reduce the burden of cognitive load to ensure they are able to concentrate on the thing we want them to concentrate on.


Launching new ideas

c5September is often the time for new ideas. New classes, new responsibilities, new agendas. Many of these new ideas are worthwhile and will have a clear impact. Some will be unceremoniously dumped, some forgotten about and some stay past their use-by date. Here are some things to bear in mind when launching something new.

Choosing what to introduce

Focus on changing the right things

There is always a cost to bringing in a new idea. Sometimes literally but also in the investment of time and even emotion. You also miss out on the possible benefit of other things you might have tried instead. It’s always best to be really clear about why something should be done, looking at deeper, underlying reasons for change rather than focussing on gimmicks or fashionable new ideas. There is no point changing anything for poor reasons or for making sweeping changes which have no impact or are forgotten by January. The things we should be spending most time on are those things which we know make a difference and encourage deeper learning.

Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater

Just because there is a compelling reason to bring in something new, this doesn’t mean that everything you have done in the past should be thrown out. It’s a real shame that the search for improvement often means getting rid of many things that actually work. There is the old saying “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results” (often wrongly attributed to Einstein) but surely it is just as ‘insane’ to bin everything?

Don’t just take something wholesale

When something is effective elsewhere, it makes sense that we would want to replicate the success. Remember that everyone’s context is different: students, timetable, classroom, community etc. When something works in another context- even within the same school or department- it may need some adaptation before it works for you. Don’t assume it will work exactly as it did in another context and be prepared to make changes.

Beware persuaders

In ‘When Can You Trust the Experts?’ Daniel Willingham offers a quick workaround for evaluating whether you should adopt a change, especially when there is a ‘persuader’- anyone who has a reason to get you to adopt something new. It is especially relevant if you are paying for it.

To get started in your evaluation, you need to be very clear on three points: (1) precisely what Change is being suggested; (2) precisely what outcome is promised as a consequence of that Change; and (3) the probability that the promised outcome will actually happen if you undertake the Change.”

This doesn’t mean that someone who is selling something will necessarily be selling something bad. Sometimes they are pretty good and well worth adopting. Just be aware.

After you have introduced something

Shorten the feedback loop

Once a change is brought in, it’s important that it is viewed as a work in progress and is open to being refined. In Practice Perfect, Doug Lemov writes: ‘If you want to change behaviour […]then shorten the feedback loop.’ The way I prefer for changes to my classroom practice is to ask a colleague to come in to give some feedback but there are many other simple ways. The key is to evaluate impact sooner and make changes. If you wait until June to evaluate something you started in September then you’re missing the opportunity to improve what you are doing until then.

Stick with it… 

To make something stick, you have to do it again and again. If you have the same routines in every lesson, students can complain that they’ve done it before or that they are bored. It’s important to stick with things and allow them to become part of the norm. If you don’t persevere through this part then you won’t build these things into your practice. Often, the culmination of what you do will come weeks or even months down the line. Routines and habits take time to take hold.

…but avoid the sunk cost fallacy

When we have invested so much in something new, we can end up sticking with it for longer than we should because of all of this investment we have put in. Like a book we are struggling through just because we have read so much of it already. This is known as the sunk cost fallacy. While it is important to persevere with things rather than just giving up when something gets difficult, it can be equally harmful to continue with something which is simply not working. Sometimes it can be a bruise to the ego to launch something and then say later down the line that you are not going to do that any more. Especially if you have asked others to invest time and effort in it too. If it doesn’t work, stop doing it!


BetaMaxI’m going to try and follow my own rules this year and will reflect no doubt on how well it went later in the year.



Authentic Audiences

Often we ask students to produce work which will only ever have one audience: the teacher. Sometimes work will be displayed and sometimes it will be peer assessed but the majority of schoolwork remains pretty much unseen.

bergerRon Berger, author of An Ethic of Excellence, is the expert in Project Based Learning, and one of his key beliefs is that students must work with a real audience in mind. In this video, students present to a real audience, having interviewed real people.

When there is an authentic audience for work, there is a transformative effect not just on the final product but, more importantly, the whole process.

Improving quality and redrafting

With authentic audiences, the work has to be good enough to present to that audience. If it isn’t, it has to be improved. It can be hard to impress upon students the power of redrafting when it is only for the teacher. Often, students will rewrite things with a few words changed and a few spelling errors fixed but they won’t achieve mastery. Having a real audience in mind helps students to focus on the minutiae of improvement but also makes them more receptive to critique.

Thinking like professionals

When you make a piece of work real, you change the role of students in the class. Students can legitimately label themselves in the professional terms of the subject. If, for example, students are producing a scientific report on the energy efficiency of the school building, then they actually are scientists. With this viewpoint, it is easy to say ‘what would a scientist do?’ if a student is struggling. You can even get in experts to speak to students or to act as regular ports of call.

While this approach is often a part of project based learning, it has its part to play in our more traditional lessons too. Here are 10 ways to ensure that students’ work has an authentic audience:

1) Display

Often, display can be used to showcase only the best work from students. This is not in itself a bad thing but look at the video below of High Tech High in San Diego, where every student’s work is displayed without exception.

2) National competitions

At any given time there are many competitions which can be a great motivator for students’ work. Our food technology students entered ‘Cook for the Queen’ last year. We have entered videos for ‘Lights Camera Parliament’ and entered a mock trial competition. I am sure there are more. For example, the Royal Mail have just launched this design a stamp competition for primary schools. STEM regularly organise competitions as do many other subject-based organisations.

3) Letters and emails

There are so many opportunities to send letters and emails. Write to local MPs, to authors, to newspapers, to local businesses. It isn’t hard to change a task so that the work will be sent to someone when it is finished.

4) Blogs

Because I am writing my thoughts down on this blog, I have to ensure that what I say is appropriate, meaningful and reasonably literate! The post takes many forms and goes through many drafts before I press ‘publish’. Then I wait for people to read it and comment. The thought that people read this is both rewarding and terrifying. Through the blog, I have also had helpful comments, constructive criticism and lots of feedback. It should be no different for students. Students can be given their own blogs or they can post on a central class blog. Either way, they are then able to share their work with a wider audience. These posts will get you started:

5) Skype

Skype education has a massive scope. You can search for students/ educators/ institutions offering lessons, you can sign up to deliver a lesson or you can forge links and just set up chats. For example, if a Spanish teacher wants students to speak about their hobbies, why not get them to speak to a school in Spain? Jon Tait explains how to use Skype in the video below:

6) Videos made by students for students

You can ask students to create videos for other students. This is a helpful activity because a) it allows students to summarise their learning b) it motivates them as they know it will be seen and c) the students who get to see the presentation learn from their peers. This could be particularly helpful in those subjects with carousels e.g. Science, Technology where students could summarise their learning in the form of a video to introduce the topic to the next class. Sixth form students can easily record videos for younger students. You could even build up a Youtube playlist over time like this one on Biology from CrashCourse. If this interests you, have a look at this blog from Mike Gunn:

7) Create for another subject

GlobeOur Construction students designed and built this version of the Globe Theatre for us to use in English. Music students could create for Dance lessons. Art students could create for Drama lessons.

8) Community

Every school exists in a unique community. There are always interesting historical and cultural stories but often people don’t see that the school exists in a particular context. There are so many members of the community who would be able to play a role in your lessons and so many potential audiences for students’ work. At our school we have worked with local primary schools, local O.A.P. groups, the local Victorian Baths, accountancy firms etc.

You can see some examples of student projects involving the community such as this project on San Diego Bay, this on the Charles River, or this on birdlife in Cramlington.

This is another fantastic project where a shop was used to exhibit student work.

Note: You can see many more examples of student work from Ron Berger’s Expeditionary Learning here:

9) Commissions

It needn’t just be about starting a piece of work you would normally do and then thinking about a relevant audience. Sometimes there are real projects that can be commissioned and which can act as the starting point for your work. For example, why not speak to your local council about surveys that they might like completing? Speak to charities about jobs they need doing. Speak to newspapers about articles they need writing. Do local businesses need advertising- a jingle?

10) School Events

Schools are abuzz with events. Visitors are forever in. There are parents’ evenings, performances, sports fixtures, staff meetings. There are so many opportunities. Even if this is just to capture the audience to display work.