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Michaela Community School, Wembley

Michaela’s Blog

Designing a Science Curriculum: my #rEDRugby talk

On Saturday 9th June, I was lucky enough to attend and speak at my first reserachED in Rugby, hosted at the stunning Rugby School, by the marvellous Jude Hunton. Here, I share my talk with some additional thoughts I didn’t have time to explain. This talk represents my vision for a curriculum.


I find it incredibly exciting thinking and talking about curriculum design! Why? The curriculum is the medium through which we expose our pupils to the incredible narrative of our subject; we take them on a journey where we stop and point to all that is worthy to admire. What’s more, is we can constantly look back and see how everything is connected, how everything joins together in a beautiful wholeness – the appreciation of which only grows stronger as the journey continues. And in this success, achieved through a well-designed curriculum, our pupils fall in love with our subject. We know we have achieved this when our pupils observe the natural phenomena surrounding them, and rather than being satisfied with seeing them as ‘magical’, believe that understanding their underlying science only serves to enhance their beauty.

Teachers have the power to achieve this with their lessons and their curriculum. As the Spiderman saying goes, ‘With great power comes great responsibility.’ So, today I want to talk about the principles that we can use to harness this responsibility and get the curriculum right.


In thinking about which principles and values should guide our thinking about effective curriculum design, I will make four assumptions.

1) Knowledge is not homogenous in its nature, just as teaching is not a homogenous action.

In other words, just as we should be having subject-specific discussions about the pedagogy of teaching science, our planning should be guided by the nature of the knowledge that a topic consists of.

2) Choose content, then let content determine pedagogy.

Our lesson should not be planned around the activities we want to try. Rather, our lessons should be planned around the content. The adage ‘simplest is best’ is useful here: a simple practice activity will usually help a pupil grasp a new idea better than a whizz-bang one.

3) Methods vary in their efficacy.

It needs to be accepted that some methods of teaching are better – more effective – than others. However, this statement requires that the word ‘effective’ be defined…

4) Effective = helps pupils encode concepts efficiently and durably.

If I can choose a method of teaching that will help pupils understand something more quickly, and will help that knowledge endure in their minds for longer, then I will choose this over another method. This means I favour direct instruction over inquiry learning, for example. It is efficient and makes learning durable.

Barriers to an Excellent Curriculum

1) Time

Teacher juggle several roles, which can mean curriculum design is placed low on the priority list. Setting curriculum as a priority depends on where you as a department are: the largest gains are to be made with strong within-lesson teaching, and strong behaviour systems. A curriculum focus can have the next biggest gains, I think. Why? Because curriculum has high leverage: it has the potential to transform pupils understanding and experience of science. But it requires lots of thinking and time – and time is the first big barrier to an excellent curriculum. The way forward is to cut the hornets (high effort, low impact tasks). The most obvious to me are: centralising detentions, even if within-faculty; having a centralised curriculum; and using whole-class feedback systems, rather than writing individual comments in every book.

Work on your resources as a team, constantly having conversations to refine, re-think and edit your curriculum.

2) Knowledge

How much training do we have in designing a curriculum? How much exposure have we had to a range of curricula? What criteria constitutes an excellent curriculum? The more I read about cognitive science, about psychology, about motivation and about the philosophy of education – the more my ideas about curriculum evolve. My talk today is a culmination of my understanding from all of my reading and discussion about curriculum. I am sure this will develop as I read more. Twitter is also a great source of ideas.

3) It’s hard.

It’s easy to get stuck. But trial and error, critical reflection and lots of within-department discussion is key and can make it easier.  You have to work as a team to improve the curriculum and draw on every teacher’s ideas and experience.

9 Steps/Principles for Building an Excellent Curriculum

STEP 1 – Set Curriculum Aims & Values

Your values colour your curriculum choices. Your opinions and the importance you assign to different parts of your curriculum are personal decisions, influenced by your political views, your experiences, subject expertise and preferences.

The first thing you must decide is what the aims of your curriculum are. These will guide your decision-making. For me, the aims of an excellent science curriculum are…

For my pupils to:

  1. have a strong knowledge and understanding of scientific phenomena;
  2. be able to apply their knowledge to a range of scenarios;
  3. be able to communicate their understanding of science effectively;
  4. become strong readers in science, so they can access texts outside of the curriculum;
  5. Have the choice of studying science beyond GCSE.

An example of these aims guiding decision-making would be point number three resulting in the decision to include lots of explicit writing opportunities to develop fluency in writing scientific explanations.

I leave out nebulous aims such as ‘foster curiosity’ because curiosity is a consequence of having knowledge. I know that if my curriculum results in durable learning, then success, motivation, curiosity and enjoyment will inexorably follow.

STEP 2 – Content selection

Decisions need to be made about which content to include and exclude from the limited time pupils have to study science. It’s important to recognise that time is a limited resource – it forces you to consider opportunity costs and to give priority to high leverage ideas. Content selection is guided by several concepts, including:

a. Substantive vs disciplinary knowledge

The history community has the most developed thinking on this as far as I know – and we have a lot to learn from them.

Substantive: what are the key facts, concepts, phenomena etc that we want our pupils to master?

Disciplinary: what do want pupils to know about how scientists work and how real science knowledge is created, verified and tested? This is usually the ‘Working Scientifically’ part of GCSE specifications.

I’d like to suggest that the disciplinary knowledge in science goes beyond understanding how new scientific knowledge is created; that it also includes understanding how science knowledge can be organised. The organisation of scientific knowledge is fundamental to understanding it better. For example, we can think of Biology at the biochemical level;  the cellular level; at the physioclogical level; at the whole-organism-level and the ecological level. This is analogous to Johnstone’s triangle in Chemistry, allowing pupils to appreciate the level of magnification at which they are thinking about particular facts at a given time (see below). But we can also think about Biology as being orgnaised by its constituent disciplines: genetics; bioenergetics; evolutionary biology – the big ideas! My thinking is, that if we teach Biology explicitly within these frameworks, then we can help pupils to organise the ideas better in their minds. And fundamentally, this organisation is not generic – it is specific to the nature of the biological knowledge being taught.

b. Core vs hinterland

The magnificent blog posts by Christine Counsell on curriculum as a narrative, and theindirect manifestations of knowledge have had a significant impact on my thinking.

Some content is core – fundamental to helping pupils grasp the key content that you want them to learn. But other knowledge – hinterland – are ideas and facts that support the understanding of the core. This knowledge may not appear on the tightly condensed summaries of your curriculum, but knowing the ‘hinterland’ brings the ‘core’ to life – it contextualises it. It might exist as multiple non-canonical examples/manifestations of a principle. Or it might exist as some of the organisational disciplinary knowledge I referred to earlier. When choosing content to include/exclude from your curriculum, think of it like this: are you telling a story, a narrative? Or just a summary of the narrative? Just like a story includes lots of details and sub-plots that add to the experience of the main plot, so should your curriculum include lots of ideas that support the story of science beyond the core knowledge.

I’d love to read examples of competition from Darwin’s Origin of Species with pupils to not only see examples of this concept, but also to expose them to the important scientists that have advanced the field. I’d like to teach examples of adaptation beyond polar bears in the Arctic and camels in deserts – because, well – there comes a greater tacit appreciation of the concept when you go beyond a few canonical examples.

c. Cultural capital

Understanding scientific ideas, knowing about the contributions of scientists upon whose shoulders we stand, and being scientifically literate are essential for fully participating in society. The media is full of scientific (and pseudo-scientific) headlines; science policy debates are common, and articles are littered with references to assumed-scientific knowledge. It thus becomes our duty to give our pupils the knowledge to access and the ability to participate – from a position of knowledge – in these aspects of our society.

d. GCSE specifications

It would be foolish to deny that a key aim of our curriculum is for our pupils to get the highest possible grades. So it’s obvious that the curriculum must cover all of the specification content. However, it is important to remember, in reference to the above points, that doing well in the exams is not just about knowing what is on the specification, but truly having deep understanding of the content contained in the specification. Some knowledge that isn’t explicitly on the specification can be useful for pupils to know. Think hinterland.

STEP 3 – Big Picture Sequencing

Once content has been selected, sequencing is vital! This is your chance to lay out the narrative of science; to make all of the beautiful underlying principles thread together and be explained through a carefully thought out sequence of manifestations.

This begs the question: what are the underlying themes and ideas that thread the scientific disciplines?

I like to begin with plotting the big topics on a page and linking them together with arrows. At the moment, those arrows all mean different things. I’m working on adding words to label the arrows. Some of Biology looks like this:


How some of the big Biology topics link together.

A major theme underlying Biology is the structure-function relationship. Every structural feature helps serve a particular function. This relationship exists at the molecular-, cellular-, tissue-, organ- and organ system-levels. Furthermore, the relationship can be extended to structure-function-adaptation. This is the idea that makes Biology so tantalisingly beautiful: the structure-function relationship persists because it is adaptive – and indeed it exists because it has evolved to be this way, selected precisely because a structure serves a particular function.

By laying out topics like in the diagram above, we can begin to plan how we will make the links explicit within a topic. The beauty of science is seeing how everything links together, so it is important that we as subject experts make these links explicit to our pupils! And that can only happen if we plan to tell this story in our curriculum.

STEP 4 – Identify the Nature of Knowledge & STEP 5 – Fine Level Sequencing

Break down the big ideas into the finest, most constituent parts. What is the nature of this knowledge that you see before you?

Is the knowledge procedural or declarative?
This will lend itself to different methods of instruction and practice. Rosalind Walkerhas written a masterpiece of a blog on planning different kinds of practice for these different categories of knowledge here. And I give a specific account of this categorisation here.

Is the knowledge you have broken down in front of you a threshold concept?
In other words – a big idea that permanently transforms the way you view other concepts? Niki Kaiser has written some fascinating pieces about what these are and how she teaches them.

Is the idea a general idea or a specific manifestation of a concept?
Recently, I planned a unit on Chemical Changes (reactivity, redox and reactions of metals), and as I was carefully setting out all of the content, I realised that the unit centred around one big principle (electron configuration determines stability), which manifested itself through several examples (various reactions of metals; reactivity series; displacement). I then noticed that other lessons in the unit were simply practice of procedural knowledge used to symbolically describe these reactions (the language of redox, of word, chemical and ionic equations). Johnstone’s triangle – the idea that chemistry can be viewed at the observational, molecular and symbolic levels – was helpful for me to map this out.

Johnstone's triangle

Johnstone’s triangle

So I wrote a map that explained how all of the separate lessons would fit and flow together for this topic:

Chemical Changes Map

At the top: all the prior knowledge required to grasp the new topic. Centre: the main principle underlying all of the lessons. Left: the declarative knowledge that are the manifestations of the central principle. Right: the procedural knowledge that pupils need to master to fluency in order to refer to the ideas on the left scientifically.

Seeing the series of lesson in this way allowed me to thread the principle of ‘stability’ throughout all of the manifestations of that principle in this unit.

Cumulative vs Hierarchical

Some knowledge must be mastered before new knowledge makes any sense. This is hierarchical knowledge. Such knowledge requires layering up – its is imperative that each idea is mastered before moving onto the next.

Some knowledge is cumulative; we can think of it as sitting adjacent to other knowledge. Understanding it does not require mastery of other ideas, and other ideas do not depend on this knowledge.

This distinction is vital for fine-level sequencing: hierarchical knowledge should be taught in a specific order, determined by the content. Which knowledge is essential? Teach that first. Break it down and break it down some more.

Concept map respiratory system

Finer sequencing for a lesson on the respiratory system which links together how the functions of the circulatory system, digestive system and respiratory system converge.

STEP 6: Direct Instruction

As tantalising as the argument, ‘The next generation of scientists will develop only if we let them think like scientists‘ is, we have to accept that our pupils are novices. Inquiry-based learning is not as effective as direct instruction, as Paul Kirschner and colleagues have summarised here.

The highest leverage aspects of direct instruction, or explicit teaching, are:

  1. Clear written explanations (we use self-written textbooks in our lessons)
  2. Dual-coding under the visualiser
  3. Concrete examples and non-examples
  4. Lots of questioning
  5. Modelling and worked examples

If your lessons include lots of these during the instruction phase, your pupils will master the knowledge efficiently.

STEP 7: Deliberate Practice

After instruction, pupils needs practice. And lots of it. The most important factor in deciding the type of practice pupils need to do is the nature of the knowledge. The most common types of practice I use in my lessons are:

  1. Knowledge drills
  2. Comprehension questions
  3. Sequencing facts to generate explanation
  4. Writing practice
  5. Converting between knowledge and diagram
  6. Mind maps

Stripping away the ‘activities’ involving reams of sugar paper, posters on walls and the ‘market-place’ has been revolutionary for my teaching practice. Instead of thinking about complex instructions, pupils only think about science in my lessons. And since ‘memory is the residue of thought’, my pupils remember the science better than ever.

STEP 8: Feedback

Answers = feedback for a lot of science teaching. You don’t need a WWW and EBI in science. Simplicity is key. In lessons asks lots and lots of questions and expect 100% participation.

To check for understanding of more conceptual understanding, MCQs, giving whole class feedback on written explanations, diagnostic quizzes and exam questions are sufficient to allow responsive teaching.

STEP 9: Building Long-Term Memory

It’s all very well having a wonderfully sequenced curriculum, but if pupils forget, we fail in our aims. To help pupils remember durably, we use lots of interleaving – both in terms of referring to prior knowledge in lessons, and doing lots of knowledge drills of old content. This is where making links becomes really powerful: the more links pupils have the more ways they have of accessing the knowledge. So in having a well-sequenced curriculum, we can create a powerful tool for memory: we can help pupils build schema; build a narrative.

And in building a beautiful, large, connected and durable schema, it can be said that our pupils have true mastery of Science.

Observations at Michaela

The culture of observations at Michaela is truly phenomenal. It provides a structure conducive to genuine improvement and honest reflection. Observations at Michaela are frequent, low-stakes and random. Since starting in September (around 24 teaching weeks), I have been observed around 70 times by other Michaela teachers. That’s right – 70! Observers are typically in my lesson for around 10 minutes, though I have had many longer observations. Every time I am observed, I am pinged an e-mail with ‘strengths’ and ‘improvements’. Equally, I probably observe around 2-3 teachers per week, and ping them immediate feedback. Observations and feedback culture are not dictated by hierarchy – every teacher supports every teacher at Michaela. In this post, I suggest three reasons why this observation culture is more powerful than a less-frequent, high-stakes, graded observation system.

Reason 1: High-frequency observations allow recurring themes to be unveiled.

In a model of observations that occurs three times per year, the major risk is that anomalous successes and unfortunate errors are stamped onto a teacher and transformed into a medium-term plan of action. The problem is, that anomalies are mistaken to be the norm, and this risks missing genuine areas of improvement. In the same way that we would evaluate summative assessments as being poorly designed if they sampled too small a domain for a valid inference to be made about a longer sequence of teaching, so too is a low-frequency observation model flawed.

Where observations are more frequent, strengths and areas of improvement can be identified when similar feedback is given several times. This means that if you fumble your questioning once in your observations, where normally this does not occur, this feedback can be taken as an instance, with no sense of dread that this will be deemed reflective of your teaching. Your excellent questioning will be noticed in other lessons later in the week. On the other hand, if you repeatedly receive feedback: ‘Your explanations are quite lengthy – break it up with questions or pupil practice’ several times – you can be sure that this is something you need to work on.

Reason 2: Low-stakes observations create a culture of learning from colleagues.

In schools where observations are used as a high-stakes way of evaluating teaching, there can be a culture of fear around observations. It discourages teachers from visiting each other’s classrooms since observations become associated with a grade and/or with judgement.

In a low-stakes observation model, the natural culture to emerge is one of support, improvement, feedback, progress and learning. Teachers at Michaela love other teachers popping into their lessons. In fact, members of my department have sent department-wide emails asking why so few teachers have visited them this half-term?! This evidently reflects a willingness to receive feedback to improve and to be reassured of what is being done well.

Reason 3: The randomness of observations makes them stress-free and useful.

I remember spending HOURS planning my first ever graded observation lesson in my NQT year. It was quite stressful, as it was one of three observations that would label me with one of ‘Requires Improvement’, ‘Good’ or ‘Outstanding’ for the remainder of the Autumn term and most of the Spring term. The unintended consequences of this planned observation are: I probably neglected the planning of other lessons that week; the observation would not be representative of my typical teaching and planning; the nerves. Of course, random, graded, high-stakes observations would be worse; my critique of planned observations is not independent of the grades and low-frequency.

The randomness of Michaela observations means I have no incentive to prepare disproportionately for some lessons compared to others. This doesn’t mean that I never request colleagues to observe me at specific times; sometimes I want a colleague’s feedback when attempting a particularly complex explanation or trying something new. But, I am now so used to teachers (or visitors!) walking into my classroom, that I sometimes forget they are there after they have walked in.

The bottom line is that eliminating planned, high-stakes, graded observations is easy. The evidence is compelling; the lack of reliability of grades suggests they are flawed. Evaluating teaching and learning can be done easily from frequent observations and feedback – teachers get better quicker.

The culture of learning from each other that emerges is the most wonderful consequence. Some of the best conversations I’ve had about teaching and learningoccurred after an observation. There is vast expertise to be found in the walls of every classroom – it should be every school’s priority to ensure the structures are in place to ensure that all teachers feel comfortable to walk in and learn from each other. Equally, every teacher, no matter how excellent, should feel encouraged to open their classroom to welcome feedback from all colleagues. And the best practitioners do indeed crave the feedback.

Are these reasons not sufficient?!

Keep Calm You're Being Observed

Thank you to all the teachers who have spent their time observing and offering feedback to me. Two claps on the count of two… 

Retrieval Cues: Do Your Questions Help or Hinder?

It’s so easy, when we really want our pupils to answer a question correctly, that we give them cues to help them reach the answer. Sometimes we see our pupils still struggling and we become tempted to offer them a just-a-few more cues to help them get there. Finally, they give the correct answer and you both feel – well, thrilled!

Here’s the catch: is there a danger that your cues are hindering rather than helping the pupils you wish to see successful? Not all cues are born equal: some are more helpful than others.

In my experience, helping pupils encode new information becomes easier as awareness of the benefits of retrieval practice grows. Regular retrieval practice spaced over time will help ensure key ideas are embedded into our pupils’ long-term memory. But it is linking new ideas with each other and to prior knowledge that can be trickier to achieve. I hope the ideas in this post can help begin to make it less tricky.

Haystack vs Network of Knowledge
Reif (1981) suggests that the teaching new facts which are unconnected and poorly organised is effectively increasing ‘the difficulty of finding any specific information in a larger haystack’. This becomes evident when, say, you have just taught a lesson on diffusion and later ask pupils to name the process… Pupils are likely to say diffusion, regardless of what you said after the word ‘process’. If you have taught diffusion, osmosis and active transport, but pupils have not mastered content properly, they are likely to select the wrong process in response to your question. More facts = larger haystack.

So how can we help pupils organise the ‘haystack’ into a neatly categorised filing cabinet – an interconnected network of facts, complete with an index? Storing away memories is one thing, but retrieving them at the time we need them is, arguably, the more difficult part. For example, a pupil might be able to recall the details of the process of natural selection. But will they write it down in response to a question that demands such an explanation? The trick to helping pupils recall relevant facts at the relevant times lies partly in understanding retrieval cues better. Moreover, it is important to see the use of retrieval cues as a way of helping pupils not only to encode facts, but to encode the links between the facts. It is in this understanding, that we as teachers can help pupils retrieve the correct ideas at the correct time more easily.

Retrieval Cues
Retrieval occurs in response to cues. If I say the word ‘carbon dioxide’ to a science teacher, the teacher may think of: photosynthesis, respiration, global warming, combustion, breathing, composition of the air, thermal decomposition and covalent bonding, to name a few concepts. This is possible because the teacher has firmly made links between all of these related concepts. If I ask the same teachers to: ‘Name a reaction in which carbon dioxide is a product’ – then the list of retrieved ideas will be much narrower: respiration, combustion and thermal decomposition. By changing the cues provided (‘reaction’ and ‘product’), the memories retrieved have been narrowed. This is useful and adaptive: in a situation that requires a precise piece of information, I don’t want to be flooded with a myriad of ideas; I want one or a few memories in the fore of my mind to choose from. Change the question still to, ‘Name a biological reaction in which carbon dioxide is the product’, it is likely that only respiration will be recalled. The cues ‘reaction’, ‘product’ and ‘biological’ were sufficient to narrow the retrieved memory from dozens of possible answers to just one.

Questioning: cues and links
I view the difficulty in helping pupils to organise information as connected to the types of questions we may ask them when helping them to assimilate new ideas.

I recently observed a colleague teaching pupils about renewable energy resources. Upon describing the idea of energy resources such as biofuels being ‘carbon neutral’, they proceeded to ask pupils questions. When pupils struggled, she started to give pupils cues such as it begins with, ‘C, N’. This got me thinking – could this be doing more harm than good?

If we give pupils too many cues, then they are highly likely to give a correct answer. This becomes dangerous if they begin to rely on cues that are not helpful to understanding. For example, when saying to pupils, ‘Which term am I looking for: C, N?’ many might be able to say ‘carbon neutral’ – but this is recalled in a fashion that does not link to the main ideas where they will *need* to remember ‘carbon neutral’. What we want from our questioning is for pupils to think of ‘carbon neutral’ when exposed to cues such as: ‘biofuels’, ‘advantages’, ‘benefit of biofuels over fossil fuels’, ‘no net addition of carbon to the atmosphere’ etc. These are the meaningful cues we want pupils to link to the phrase ‘carbon neutral’ rather than ‘C, N’ etc.

So, the more of our questions that are linked to these, rather than artificial cues, the more we will help them to successfully retrieve this information in meaningful way. For example, a questioning sequence may proceed as:

  1. What term do we use to describe a fuel that does not add any carbon dioxide to the environment overall? *Blank faces*
  2. Hint: biofuels are an example of a fuel that does not add carbon dioxide to the environment overall. What term do we use to describe this? *Blank faces*
  3. Hint: This is a big benefit of biofuels over fossil fuels, because fossil fuels contribute lots of carbon dioxide to the environment and so we cannot describe fossil fuels as being… what?

These clues are far more helpful to pupils, even if they do not end up getting the correct answer initially, because they have to think about related, meaningful ideas. ‘C, N’ or ‘we learned about this yesterday’ or ‘remember that video I showed you’ – does not make them think about the meaning of the phrase.

It is tempting, when you really want your pupils to give the correct answer, to keep adding in clues – but this must be done in a way which makes them think about the content itself rather than artificial clues. Otherwise they are retrieving without context and are performing, not demonstrating understanding; they are giving the illusion of understanding. It is preventing them from making valuable connections with various pieces of information.

This idea is also central to making links between different topics in your subject – the more explicitly we focus on making links, the more we proliferate the number of retrieval cues that lead to a particular fact, and so the more likely our pupils will be at remembering a particular fact in response to a particular question successfully. The more organised the information is, the more likely the correct idea will be recalled. I love teaching lessons that make links explicit. For example, when teaching the respiratory system, I spend a whole lesson (or more) linking it to digestion, diffusion and circulation:

Concept map respiratory systemSee my blog post on dual-coding for more examples.

So, pedagogy take-away:

  1. Help pupils make connections between different facts by using content-related cues, rather than cues that lack meaning in your questions.
  2. Explicitly teach the links between various facts and ideas, since we want the web of related knowledge to grow to further embed memories and increase the chance of successful retrieval in response to cues that they may meet in an exam. Ask questions about the links.

History at Michaela 

The weekend before last, I spoke at the West London Free School History Conference. The event was a superb gathering of history teachers and it was a real privilege to be able to share some of our Michaela insights. I thought it would be a nice idea for me to summarise the content of my workshop here, for the benefit of those who could not make it, or for those that are interested in our approach to teaching history. At the conference I spent some time explaining the core principles of the school, as a whole. This has been summarised far better elsewhere, so for this post I will give a brief overview of our approach to history specifically, as I outlined at the conference. I hope this goes some way into providing a concise guide into the underlying philosophy that underpins our thinking in the Humanities Department and how we get the pupils thinking hard about the discipline and writing great history.

History at Michaela

1. Philosophy

We believe that our pupils deserve to be taught the very best of what has been thought and said across the humanities. We think that if the right systems and teaching is in place, then the subject content should engage our pupils. We therefore do not plan for engagement, but for rigour. This does not mean we don’t think carefully about how we chunk knowledge so that pupils remain focused on what’s important. It does not mean either that we don’t think about how we can make our explicit instruction capture the imagination of our charges. We do not teach topics just because they are relevant, but because we think our pupils need to know them. We do not select topics based on narrow pupil demographics. We believe firmly in teaching our children their rightful inheritance of western philosophy, history and culture. This does not mean we do notteach history through a global lens, nor does it mean that we don’t focus on aspects of history that have been unfairly side-lined in the past. A choice to teach one thing in history is a choice not to teach a thousand others. Decisions need to be expedient and it would be irresponsible if we did not give our pupils the necessary amount of British and European History which would enable them to anchor themselves in the country and continent that is highly likely to be their home for the rest of their lives. It would also be irresponsible to exclude them from the great conversations of western culture that the wealthy and powerful are able to navigate with such deftness and ease.

2. Knowledge

Our philosophy as a school is that academic knowledge should and needs to be taught explicitly from the front, so that our pupils can creatively flex that knowledge and bring it to bear on conceptually focused questions. In history, we think this is especially clear. I’ll use the example of the First World War. A pupil cannot answer a question on the causes of the First World War unless he/she knows the following:

  1. the chronology of 1870-1914
  2. the main events and their consequences
  3. people and personalities
  4. procedural knowledge of cause and effect which enables pupils to discern the relative impact of certain events

All of the above can and should be taught explicitly. Only then will a pupil be close to answering a question which can be objectively agreed on as a ‘sound’ historical argument.

3. How we teach

Contrary to popular opinion, a change is not always as good as a rest. We believe that it is the content that should vary, not the task or the activity. Why?

a) The level of complexity and variety for a pupil in a school day is already extremely high. Imagine a pupil who has six lessons each day for five days of the week.

b) By reducing the number of tasks or activities for a pupil, teachers do not have to spend time instructing how to do the task. They can spend all of their time addressing misconceptions of the what rather than the how.

c) Consistency –  By limiting the number of tasks in a lesson, the variety betweenteachers and subjects is limited. This avoids ‘the race to the bottom’ for ‘fun’ or ‘engaging’ activities.

Tasks at Michaela therefore are limited to written and oral re-caps, quizzes, whole-class reading and instruction, co-construction, pair work and independent practice.

Knowledge Organisers can be important in history, as well as other subjects. The difference lies in how we use them in our department. We still organise key dates, people and events but we also consider the procedural knowledge needed for pupils to make sense of a particular question or period. We would use Christine Counsell’s phrasing and call this distinction ‘residue’ knowledge and ‘finger-tip’ knowledge. Residue knowledge is the sense of period that they will leave with at the end of the unit and will remember. This might be a broad sense of the events or chronology, or an understanding of important historical concepts, either substantive, procedural or both. We interpret ‘finger-tip’ knowledge as the knowledge that pupils need in the short-term to answer a specific historical question. Our aim is for pupils to remember what they have learnt and so we need to be careful about what we include on organisers and how we use them in lessons to ensure that the knowledge sticks with the pupils. They are useful for codifying the most important knowledge for the unit, however it is vital that they are used as a tool and not an all-encompassing panacea. There is a temptation to view glib one-sided organisers as the solution to the problem of the pupils not really knowing an awful lot and failing to retain knowledge beyond the unit. In reality, they are used at Michaela as a small part of the big picture of history curriculum design, teaching and retrieval. If you think that learning the knowledge organiser is the main aim of the game, then you have missed the point entirely. The most important resource in the room is the teacher’s specialism and subject knowledge. Knowledge organisers must be used in conjunction with excellent teaching and formative assessment, otherwise they can lead to the substantive knowledge becoming acutely inflexible.

4. How we get history to ‘stick’.

We believe that schools can underplay the importance of memory in the curriculum.We say that if you haven’t remembered it, you haven’t learnt it. How do we get pupils to remember the history they have done, not just last lesson, but all the way back to Year 7?

a) Sequenced and distributed re-cap: we give the pupils a third of lesson time to re-visit and retrieve knowledge from previous units and previous years.

b) Overlearning: we keep pupils learning after they know the material to prevent forgetting: ‘a good rule of thumb is to put in another 20 percent of the time it took to master the material’. This is why we spend so much lesson time on recap.

c) Testing frequently: testing students frequently helps them remember material. This another reason we spend so much lesson time on recap.

5. Enquiry

All historical topics should have a focus. The work of Michael Riley et al. is instructive in clarifying the importance of rigorous and challenging questions in secondary history classrooms. The answering of historical questions is at the heart of what we do. The origin of the word history, as most of us know means ‘enquiry’. However, an enquiry question is not the same as enquiry-based learning. We think that sometimes, a slavish focus on the enquiry question can lead to enquiry-induced blindness, whereby other fascinating and important parts of a historical topic are side-lined. Moreover, enquiries can often be created for engagement, rather than rigour. It is not to say that engagement and rigour are mutually exclusive, far from it. In fact, it is the intrinsic rigour of the subject, when mastered, that makes history engaging. We think that the best questions are rooted in historical scholarship. It is another aspect to our practice that we think is worth thinking about to ensure our questions reflect real historical debates and enable the pupils to get a broad sense of period. We try and craft enquiries that enable the pupils to bring as much wider knowledge to bear on a specific question.

6. Substantive & Procedural knowledge

There have been necessary and positive developments in history teaching in recent decades, notably the understanding that in order to ‘do history’; you need to be clear about the analytical framework in which you are flexing your substantive knowledge. However, we would still argue that this is still knowledge that can be taught explicitly and that a dogmatic focus on second order concepts such ‘change’ or ‘cause’ can actually inhibit us from mastering the critical substantive knowledge that will enable us to actually discern change, or ascertain a cause. Crucially, every analytical framework is firmly rooted in the specific domain of that topic – or the substantive knowledge of that period. For example, understanding the causes of the First World War requires a radically different conceptual and substantive toolkit than understanding the causes of the European Renaissance, despite the existence of clear similarities of second order concepts across time. This is not to say that second order concepts are not vital to discerning patterns in history, merely that we are careful to ensure that teaching second-order concepts is not at the cost of teaching the substantive knowledge which will enable them to understand and discern the second order concepts in the first place.

7. The Epistemology of History has become its Ontology

This is a phrase which I was told about by Michaela’s former Head of Humanities, Jonny Porter. He came across it in a blog by Michaela Fordham a few years ago and I find it a particularly instructive phrase. ‘Epistemology’ in this case means the theory and methodology of history knowledge (the ‘doing’ history). ‘Ontology’ in this case refers to its very essence, or being.  Although enquiry is at the heart of historical scholarship, clearly that enquiry is intended to discern truth in and of itself. We believe it is a mistake to make the ‘doing history’ the most important component of history itself, particularly at KS3. There are two problems with this view of the discipline for our secondary school pupils. It often manifests itself in the belief that as long as pupils are able to master certain skills, then that makes them able to tackle historical problems and by extension, the problems of the real world more effectively. This is often shown in the ‘death by sources’ fetish that seems to have dominated much history teaching in schools. We believe this is a mistake because the idea of ‘analysis’ has to be rooted in the topic, or period you are studying. The second problem with this view is that in order to ‘do history’, it requires prior knowledge in the first place. I think about some of the classic sources used in KS3 and KS4 History. One example might beJoseph Goebbel’s Sportpalast Speech calling for ‘total war’. In order to fully understand this source, you need reams of knowledge. You need to know who Joseph Goebbels was. You need to know that he was the Nazi Minister of Propaganda. You need to know who the Nazis were. You need to know what propaganda is. You even need to know what a minister is. Finally, you need to know what was going on in Germany in 1943, and that the Red Army had just defeated the German Army at Stalingrad and that the Americans and British were starting to see the fruits of some early success. This prior knowledge needs to have been taught somewhere along the line, otherwise ‘doing history’ becomes an esoteric fumble which punishes those pupils who do not have the benefit of a culture of wider reading or a knowledge rich curriculum. These pupils, are of course, incidentally often the poorest.

8. Analysis

‘Analysis’ is an opaque term to describe what is ostensibly the essence of historical scholarship. Analysis is the ability to bring relevant domain specific knowledge to bear on a question, or debate. It is also true that the main points have clash within the main historical eras we teach have generally been discerned, for the purposes of an 11 year old. It is therefore incumbent on us to also provide the pupils with the main lines of analysis in our teaching so that can understand the variety of ways they could answer a particular question. This is not to say that we do not expose them to differences in interpretation, or that we do not allow pupils to develop their own ways of expressing historical claims,  only that we think it is often the case that we prematurely rush to complex history without the pupils having a bedrock of knowledge beforehand. It would be irresponsible to not teach pupils that claims about the past are contested.  Naturally, as time progresses, these scaffolds and lines of analysis will be reduced, much in line with the pupils’ understanding that history is not just a clear cut narrative but also contains a myriad of different interpretations and viewpoints. The aim of KS3 history at Michaela is to give the pupils enough substantive knowledge to ensure they are ready to enter the intellectually volatile world of the professional historian.

The Influence of Michaela

I started teaching at Michaela Community School in September 2017. Learning about, applying to and joining Michaela has permanently transformed my view of education forever. Learning about Michaela has been like constantly learning new threshold concepts: my view of the world dramatically changes with each new embedded idea, and I acquire a new lens with which to reflect upon my previous practices.

At Michaela, we have firmly held beliefs about education, pupils and values. When I say ‘we’, I truly do intend to use the all-encompassing pronoun for all the teachers at our school; yes – Michaela is rare insofar that all teachers agree on the philosophy which underpins decision-making. This should not be conflated with conformity and with being an ‘echo-chamber’; debate, discussion and challenging each other’s views are all integral parts of our structure (e.g. through our weekly CPD) and culture (e.g. through our culture of candour, open-door policy in both classrooms and SLT offices).

In this post, I will give a few examples of how my thinking has changed in dramatic ways. Notably, I was able to change my mind not because school decisions were made that I had to go along with, but rather, there is such a strong culture of asking questions, explaining the rationale for decisions and an openness on the part of all of my colleagues to spend time discussing philosophy. For example, the Head has an open-door policy, and I can walk into her office any time she is free, coffee-in-hand, and ask anything I’d like. Many aspects of changing my mind have come from reading about Michaela prior to my joining – this post focuses on these.

Belief 1: Long-term freedoms come at the price of short-term freedom; future liberation comes from enduring self-discipline

Most people will accept that in order to achieve a long-term goal, you need to work hard and make short-term sacrifices. At times, this can mean doing something that you do not enjoy. For example, practicing scales in a musical instrument is perceived as uninteresting to some. It is so much easier to drop the instrument and watch the second season of Stranger Things instead. But, the short-term sacrifice of the pleasure of this indulgence pays off in achieving greater piano-playing fluency. In the future, I will have the freedom of performing piano at the concert I have always wanted to perform at, since I have acquired the musical ability to have this be a choice. Without practice, this opportunity would not have even materialised as a possible opportunity to grasp. Sacrificing the short-term freedom of choosing to do whatever I like during piano-practice-time paid off as greater freedoms and choices in the future.

How does this relate to education? In school, the teacher’s duty is to constantly make decisions about what the pupils will be doing at any given time. We have a clear aim: for our pupils’ minds and lives to become enriched with knowledge and skills. The more you know and can do, the more you can think about and the more you can marvel in the world that you live in. We want our pupils to be happy and fulfilled. Now, picture lesson-time, and a few pupils have just finished their work before everyone else and begin whispering to each other about their weekend plans.

At Michaela teachers would instantly stop this from proceeding and give demerits to both pupils involved. Why? Because lesson-time is a precious limited resource: every second matters and must be utilised thinking about and mastering the subject content at hand. If pupils fall into habits of being distracted, they miss out. If teachers permit time-wasting, it will begin to permeate into other areas of their decision making and ultimately, pupils will be prevented from becoming the best in their subject they could possibly be. Our standards and expectations have to be incredibly high if we are to allow our pupils to succeed.

Now, it might seem difficult to stop pupils having a quick chat – they have finished the set task after all! When I first started my teaching career, I distinctly recall feeling bad for stopping pupils doing such things because I felt guilty for reprimanding pupils who were fulfilling the innocent desire of filling in their friends on their weekend plans. ‘It’s just 30 seconds until we stopped the task anyway’, I would justify to myself.

After having my thinking on this challenged, I raised my standards and changed the way I started to teach. I noticed how much more my pupils could get through in a lesson if they were fully committed to think about science only, when in science lessons.

At Michaela, pupils will usually be checking over their answers or self-quizzing on key knowledge if they finish early. Their habits have been shaped by their caring teaching to have the self-discipline to continue working. They will achieve more, see more success and be more fulfilled as result of all of the many decisions Michaela teachers make to ensure lesson time involves 100% focus.

We constantly explain to our pupils, the idea of short-term discipline enabling long-term freedoms. Make the right choices now, and you will have a strong set of GCSEs. You will be able to apply to a wider range of universities. A greater range of opportunities will be open to you because all of that time and all of those difficult choices you invested over several years will have come to fruition. 

Belief 2: Pupils must take personal responsibility for their choices.

Many people would not, at a first glance, disagree with belief 2. However, the manifestation of ‘choices’ and the extent to which we view ‘personal responsibility’ seems to stimulate much debate.

The simplest example is pupils being given a detention for not bringing their equipment such as pens and pencils to school. We believe pupils have the responsibly to be prepared for school. The detention serves as a consequence to remind pupils that they must take responsibility. This applies to not completing homework to a high standard, poor effort in lessons, being late to school etc.

When I first started teaching, I used to hand out pens constantly to those that were poorly equipped. This resulted in ungrateful pupils with a heightened sense of entitlement. It also failed pupils in the sense that I didn’t help them to become organised or responsible for their choices and preparedness

At Michaela, our culture of gratitude means that pupils give appreciations to their friends for lending them equipment when they forget theirs; appreciate their teachers when we do equipment checks ‘for helping us to be organised’; even for giving them detentions to teach them to become better prepared.

We constantly explain to pupils that their behaviours and responses to situations are their choices. If they respond angrily to a teacher giving them a demerit – that is their choice; their loss of self-control. Pupils must take responsibility and exert self-control in situations like these and make the better choice of responding calmly. This serves three benefits: the teacher can continue a lesson without disrupting the learning of the rest of the class; the pupil can continue to learn in that lesson; thirdly and most powerful of all is that it empowers our pupils to deal with difficult circumstances and act stoically. This philosophy is incredibly liberating and gives our pupils a mindset of achieving despite any circumstances in their lives that they cannot control. At least they can control their reactions and their efforts, and this will ultimately transform pupils from potential excuse-makers, to shapers of their own destiny. I know that since joining Michaela, I have made fewer excuses and made better choices in responding to circumstances outside my control. I can only imagine how remarkable the impact can be on pupils acting this way from Year 7.

In this way, our structures free our pupils to succeed in spite of their potentially difficult circumstances.

MCS Logo

To find out more about Michaela, you can read Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers.

We’re squeamish about scripture

Every teacher should look at Eton’s ‘King’s Scholarship’ exam. It reminds you what is possible.

It’s the exam that boys take at the age of 13 if they want to stand a chance of becoming a ‘King’s Scholar’ (named after the school’s founder, Henry VI) and live in ‘College’ (the oldest and grandest part of the school). Apart from perhaps a similar test at Winchester College, this is about as hard as exams get for 13 year-olds in England. And it’s not for the faint-hearted.

The Parable of the Prodigal Son

The other day I was looking through and paused on one of the ‘divinity’ questions:

‘Is the Parable of the Lost Son really about the Lost Son?’

It’s a great question. Rembrandt’s ‘Return of the Prodigal Son’ has been my favourite piece of artwork since I first saw it in the flesh in St. Petersburg when I was 18.

Image result for parable of the prodigal son rembrandt

As I looked at the question on the paper I thought, yes, it’s partly about the lost son: the egotistical young man whose request for early inheritance is to say to his father ‘I wish you were dead’ at a time when a person’s financial security was inexorably tied to their land. For Christians, humans are often like that son: they step out on their journey of self-discovery and individual concern, even when, and often especially when, those closest to them are trampled underfoot.

But it’s also about the elder brother who stays at home to look after his father. He is the ‘socially respectable’ son whose sense of his own moral superiority and overweening pride separates him from a father who would gladly kill his prize calf to welcome back his feckless younger child. ‘He was lost and now he is found’, says the father, as he admonishes the self-righteous tendencies in us all.

For Rembrandt, the parable centres on the father. That’s why, in his painting, our eye is deliberately drawn to the father’s embrace of the errant younger son. The elderly man stoops down to pull in his shoeless child so completely that his arms envelop him; the father’s voluminous red cloak wraps around the pair like a blanket. In doing so, Rembrandt says to each person who gazes up at the vast canvass, ‘You, too, are loved unconditionally by God the Father. He welcomes you back even after you have tried to make your way in the world without Him’.

As I thought back to Rembrandt’s painting I wondered how many school children have the scriptural knowledge that would enable them to appreciate this painting? How many pupils know Genesis, Job and John as well as they know Harry Potter or Horrid Henry? And does it matter?

How many of them can understand Rembrandt’s ‘Tower of Babel’ – that great evocation of mankind’s hubris? Or Dali’s ‘Crucified Cross’? Or Caravaggio’s searching, discomforting depiction of ‘Peter’s Denial’? I don’t think it would be many. A great cultural treasure-trove impenetrable to a pupil whose own thought-world is so distant from that of the artist.

Doubtless some of the reason for this we can attribute to the decline of religious observance in Britain. Christian imagery no longer frames children’s upbringing with a force that it once did.

Scriptural squeamishness

Yet it’s also about what’s going on in our schools. A biblical literacy that was once assumed of society and reinforced in the classroom is increasingly absent from society and spurned in the classroom. Scriptural squeamishness is what characterises the teaching of religion, where it happens at all, in 21st century Britain.

There is some good reason for this. As fewer and fewer British families identified as Christian after the Second World War, the apparent need for confessional religious instruction fell away. As it did so, a new form of phenomenology or sociology of religion took its place, gradually eroding the more partial disciplines of Christian theology and scripture.

This sociological turn was of course rooted in the wider post-modern concerns about truth and objectivity. If what I consider to be true is just my truth and not the Truth, then what right do I have privileging Christianity in my curriculum over Buddhism, Sikhism or Islam? Of course, this judgemental non-judgmentalism is self-defeating, because to say that all truths are equal is itself an exclusive truth claim.

And, now, the problem with this disciplinary turn is truly coming into the view: many RE teachers, either nervous of Christian scripture because of its truth claims, or now lacking any substantial knowledge of it, focus their pupils’ attention on the sociology or phenomenology of religion, as if understanding how and in what way someone practises their religion can be extricated from the why, and apparently oblivious to the reality that knowing scripture is the essential component of knowing religion.

More so, however, they have utterly failed to appreciate why Rembrandt painted this great scene in the first place – because he thought it was true. For Rembrandt, and Caravaggio, and Michelangelo and countless others, these stories contain a philosophical and psychological truth about how humans should live their lives. It is a call to action – an imperative – even if it is a literary invention.

The meaningful over the expedient

My consciousness of this has been heightened by the emergence of the Canadian psychologist, Jordan Peterson. I have been fascinated for some months now by his YouTube lecture series on the psychological significance of the Bible. Some will undoubtedly balk at me having cited Peterson at all, not least because of his contentious views regarding sex and gender. I won’t go into that here. I’m simply interested in his biblical exegesis, which I find quite fascinating.

Peterson argues that to be truly literate in the Western canon requires a deep knowledge of scripture; one cannot truly describe oneself as ‘culturally literate’ without it. I have written here about the impact that this has for those educators who describe themselves as ‘Hirschians’ in any meaningful sense. If you want your pupils to be able to appreciate the Great Works of literature, art or music, you will have to give them an adequate scriptural education.

Much more fascinating, though, is Peterson’s contention that, in the way that they have become a repository for our communal wisdom, the books of the Bible are an essential part of our psychological health. Rebutting the New Atheists’ usual category error, Peterson argues that the Bible is neither history (as generally understood) nor empirical science. Rather, this library of books – history, wisdom, philosophy, poetry – is how Western civilisation has codified the right ordering of life. To try and step outside into a chaotic world without it, as if an errant younger son, is at the very least anovelty for a community that has drawn from this collected wisdom for the last 1700 years.

His most recent book, ’12 Rules for Life’ draws heavily from his research into the Bible. I recommend reading it. I cannot possibly do justice to the sheer breadth and depth of it here, but in one lovely bit of analysis, Peterson stops on Christ’s encounter with Satan in the wilderness (Luke 4:1-3 and Matthew 4:1-11). Satan first tempts the starving Christ to turn the desert rocks into bread if he is so hungry. Then he suggests that he throw himself off a cliff, calling on God and the angels to break his fall. But Christ responds to such temptations by saying that ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.’

Peterson’s exegesis is simple: even under conditions of extreme privation, there are more important things than food. In the story, Christ could easily have chosen to create enough bread for the moment, or even enough money to solve the problem of privation more generally. But Christ aims for something higher: live as we should live, aim for a higher mode of being, and those around us will hunger no more. As Peterson says, ‘That would require each and every person to live, and produce, and sacrifice, and speak, and share in a manner that would permanently render the privation of hunger a thing of the past.’ To relentlessly pursue what is good, ethical and true is the way in which we all work towards the right-ordering of the world; it’s the way we create order out of chaos. We learn from the archetypal perfect man – even if he is just a literary invention –  that we should pursue that which is meaningful rather than that which is expedient.

I think we should teach our pupils about these great stories from Bible, that much is clear. In the past, I have suggested we do so simply because a child growing up cannot be ‘culturally literate’ without them. But perhaps there’s more to it than that. Perhaps these stories, sharpened on the whetstone of the ages, are full of psychological and philosophical wisdom that we should share. Perhaps they can be meaningful as well as expedient.

Explanation, Feedback & Practice

Recently, I was observed by a member of my SLT (the wonderful @BrettWYale), and he gave me some feedback that sparked a brilliantly clarifying conversation. In this post, I want to share my reflections on this discussion.

During the lesson, I was teaching my Year 9s why simple covalent substances have low melting and boiling points. This part of the lesson proceeded as such:

  1. We read a paragraph from our self-written textbooks, and made some annotations.
  2. I asked pupils simple questions to check their prior knowledge.
  3. I then used a pre-prepared diagram (dual-coding) to give an explanation,interspersed with questions to check the understating of the diagram as I explained it.

MP BP Simple Covalent

Most pupils could successfully answer my questions. However, Brett pointed out that there were a few pupils who were not putting their hands up – and so did not gain a clear understanding of the concept. This boiled down to two suggestions:

  1. Instead of having a pre-prepared visual, in this case, I could have drawn the diagram live, so that pupils’ working memories were not overloaded and the information was chunked to build up an explanation. (Hydrogen atoms first, covalent bonds added next, then more molecules and then the intermolecular forces).
  2. Instead of interspersing my explanation with questions, hold back my questions until the end so that my explanation was not interrupted.

The first suggestion makes a lot of sense (and I’ve blogged about it before!) It was a judgement call on my part where I thought pupils would follow easily. Never assume! Live dual-coding has benefits over using pre-made diagrams, and is supported by the ideas of cognitive load theory.

The second suggestion sparked a fascinating conversation. The crux of it led to this realisation:

  1. Pupils have a fixed, limited amount of time to learn content.
  2. Time is split between: teacher explanations, pupil practice and feedback. Explanation includes presenting new content, using questions to build up a concept, and modelling. Pupil practice involves individual practice of taught knowledge such as answering questions, solving problems etc. Feedback includes any form of response to pupil work which allows them to confirm or challenge their understanding.
  3. Given the time constraint, there exists a trade-off between these three factors. These three things tug at each other for time: for example, any extra time I spend explaining, is time taken away from pupils to practice.

Explanation Practice Feedback

This begs the question: how efficient is my explanation? I had never thought of extra explanation as a cost to pupil practice time before. I had always assumed that extra explanations are useful to pupils. And they might well be. But are they more useful than them spending that time practicing more in class?

Of course, there is no correct answer to how much time should you spend on each of explanation – it depends entirely on your pupils and the topic (and what occurs outside of lessons]. But I realised that I should always be critical of my explanations. Are they as efficient as they could be at helping pupils to understand the content?

When explaining, pupils may be able to answer your questions and seem like they are confident because you have scaffolded the explanation and questioning. But with individual practice, they are less reliant on your cues.

This changes the planning game for me, and I think the following three questions are useful:

1. Where could I be more efficient in my explanations?

E.g. should I include questioning during or after my explanation? Sometimes, it is more useful to ask during an explanation to ensure pupils are following. But sometimes this can interrupt the flow of a build-up of a concept in pupils’ minds. A solution could be to ask questions to yourself to model your thought-process.

Refelcting on your explanations can include questions such as: ‘Do I need to spend more time explaining, or will the individual practice and feedback be more useful for pupils?’ ‘Should I use diagrams to support my explanation, or will text suffice?’

The use of concrete examples and non-examples are an excellent way of explaining more abstract ideas. An abstract concept can be hard to imagine; a concrete example will help pupils to make sense of a concept. Multiple examples with variation (including non-examples) are even better since they highlight the deep structures of a concept rather than surface features of one example (e.g. see this post on concrete examples).

2. At what point is the practice pupils are doing sufficient?

Practice must be chunked up into the components of the final skill. Planning a lesson isn’t sufficient – a unit must be planned with thought given to all prior knowledge that must be mastered before moving on and making links E.g. pupils should be clear what a covalent bond, a molecule, melting point, intermolecular force etc. is before being able to explain why simple covalent substances have low melting and boiling points. Have the individual components been practiced by pupils before moving on?

This is also where ideas of interleaving and spaced practice should be considered. Pupils who spend a given amount of time on spaced practice outperform pupils who spend the same amount of time on massed practice (e.g. see Kang, 2016).

In the example above, I gave pupils a structure for their explanations, and they practiced using this to explain the melting and boiling point of different substances. The structure was: state the type of bond that is to broken, state whether the bond is weak or strong, and state whether this means little or a lot of energy will be required to break the bond. This scaffold succeeded in helping them to explain the concept well.

3. When and how should I give feedback to optimise time?

Check pupils have mastered key sub-skills and knowledge. Include spaced retrieval practice to check mastery of prior knowledge. We use 6-12 question drills at the start of every lesson which tests knowledge within and beyond the current topic. Pre-empt and explain misconceptions before pupils practice. Circulate during tasks to catch misconceptions, and give whole class feedback on these. Share examples under the visualiser and dissect together.

Brett suggested using ‘nearly correct’ answers as a form of checking pupil understanding. Pupils love spotting mistakes and it is very revealing when they think something is correct. For example, a few weeks later, I showed pupils a sentence: ‘Diamonds have four covalent bonds whereas graphite has three’. Nearly all pupils said this sentence was factually correct and would give it a mark in an exam. This made me realise that I had not given them sufficient opportunity to practice, since their language was not precise enough to warrant being awarded marks for a question on the bonding in diamond and graphite. (There was an audible gasp when I suggested that they should say ‘Every carbon atom in diamond makes four covalent bonds, whereas every carbon atoms makes three covalent bonds in graphite’. Making this explicit was necessary, but allowing them to make the mistake initially probably makes the idea stick!)

This reveals another aspect of science teaching to consider: pupils need time practising building their understanding of facts, but practice and feedback of the facts must include the language and correct articulation. When explicitly teaching a concept, a focus on language is crucial. This will be a topic of a future blog post.

A final realisation: the (new) science GCSE is tough. With limited lesson time, the onus is on pupils to work hard at home. If they rely on practice in class, and lesson time only, it is unlikely to be sufficient. They must review content and practice. If you let the lack of hard work from some pupils stop you from moving on, you will be doing a disservice their harder-working counterparts.

Precise Practice

05 Feb 2018, Posted by admin in Michaela's Blog

Precise Practice

Posted on February 3, 2018 by Katie Ashford

As I explained in my last post, practising the final skill over and over again does little to develop the final skill. Experts in any field won’t simply have practised the final skill in isolation: they will have spent a large chunk of time being drilled in the skills that underpin and lead up to the final skill. So why are teachers often tempted to ask their pupils to answer practice exam questions every lesson?

Writing a paragraph or essay in every English lesson has a couple of drawbacks. Firstly, it sets kids up to fail. If they haven’t yet had enough practice of the skills underpinning essay writing, they will likely write something poor and imprecise. When kids write things like “He uses a rhetorical question to make the reader think” or “She uses alliteration to make the reader read on” it’s not – contrary to popular belief- because one of their previous teachers told them that would be a good thing to write. No teacher in the history of the universe has ever said that. No, kids write things like that because they have no idea what else to say, and in their admirable attempt to try hard and impress you, they write the first thing that comes into their heads. Why waste their time on this? Instead, they first need more focused practice on the skills and knowledge that underpin essay writing.

Secondly, writing a paragraph or essay every lesson isn’t always helpful for the teacher. Particularly when the whole class seem to have flunked their essays, it’s so hard for a teacher to know exactly what to give feedback on, and exactly what to re-teach or which misconceptions to clear up. Instead, teachers need precise feedback that guides them as to what to do next.

So how might we go about this? How can we get pupils to practise the right things? And how can we ensure that teachers are given the most precise and useful information about their pupils’ progress and areas for development?

Here are a few things we do in the Michaela English department. (Sadly these are all English specific, but perhaps teachers of other subjects could offer alternatives that suit their subjects).

  1. Sequencing activities:

The new GCSEs demand pupils to know a whole text inside out. They sometimes struggle to make the best connections across whole texts- for example, being able to remember where in Macbeth we see ‘blood’ as a symbol for guilt. Rather than waiting until pupils have read the whole play, it is often useful to ask pupils to put events into order even when they are only a few scenes in. For example:

 Put the events in order:

  • In an aside, Macbeth reveals his intentions to deceive: ‘stars hide your fires’.
  • The witches decide to meet with Macbeth
  • Duncan declares Macbeth the new Thane of Cawdor
  • The Thane of Cawdor is executed
  • Banquo and Macbeth hear the witches’ prophecies
  • Ross delivers the message to Macbeth

 Pupils really have to know the text to be able to carry out this activity. Once they have grasped the sequence of major events in the plot, you can then begin to weave in questions about particular ideas, themes or images in the plot. For example:

  • In act 3 scene 1, Macbeth’s evil deepens. List three events prior to this where Macbeth’s evil is shown.
  • In act 3 scene 1, Macbeth’s evil deepens. List three events that occur before or after this in which Lady Macbeth’s evil is shown.

 This enables them to make connections between scenes, and understand how authors develop characters and themes in the text as a whole.

        2. Quick Listing

Sometimes, a good old fashioned ‘mind map’ (or a list if that makes more sense for the content your pupils are studying- I don’t think it really matters) can be a really useful form of retrieval practice, particularly for those pupils who have struggle to think of points to make in their writing. This is particularly useful in the run up to exams, when you don’t have time to test the entire domain, but you want to make sure your pupils’ know enough to be able to answer any question that might come up.  I like to do this as a quick recap activity, e.g.:

  • Write down everything you can remember about Arthur Birling’s relationship with Eva Smith.
  • List 3 beliefs Priestley holds about society. Extension: add where these beliefs are best exemplified in the play.
  • Write down all the interactions Eva Smith had with the Birlings.
  • Write a plan for the following question: ‘Explore how Shakespeare presents Lady Macbeth as ambitious in act 1 scene 5’,

These activities test memory, of course, but they also give the teacher a sense of how much pupils know about specific topics. They tell you whether your class are ready to move on, can help to shine a light on misconceptions, and might provide a spring board on which to add further details about a particular idea or topic, as a way to deepen understanding.

  1. Concept Links

In order to develop their understanding of connections between ideas in a text, and to improve their interpretations, pupils need lots of opportunities to think about connections and interpretations. Asking them questions that force them to choose between different interpretations helps to cement their understanding whilst making this visible to the teacher. As with the examples above, these might develop as pupils’ familiarity with the text increases. Early on, I might ask them some questions like this: (click on image to enlarge):

I’d be careful to phrase these points differently each time I tested them, so that I could measure whether or not pupils really understand. So perhaps a couple of lessons later I might present them with this:


In the second set of questions, I’ve tried to increase the complexity ever so slightly by being less specific, and depending less on the most obvious description of the characters. I’d continue to add additional layers of complexity as we continue moving through the unit, perhaps by adding in more components to the question:


Over time, you can build up from pupils knowing who’s who, to what they represent and the significance of their role in the play.

To encourage pupils to think about their interpretations, you might want to give them a question like this:

  • Which statement best fit Arthur’s character, and which best fit Sybil’s? Write an ‘A’ next to the statements you believe match Arthur, and an ‘S’ next to the statements that match Sybil.
  1.  Pretends to be charitable
  2. Created to look stupid to a 1946 audience
  3. Is terrified of losing social status
  4. Represents the arrogance of capitalists

Again, this activity would tell you a lot about what your pupils understand about the text and the writer’s intentions. You could also have an interesting conversation about option 3 as arguably this applies to both characters. Either way, this prompts some deep thinking about the text.

 Because/But/So sentences:

This idea comes from this book, which is brilliantly summarised here. The idea is that you give pupils the same sentence stem, changing only the final word (to either ‘because’, ‘but’ or ‘so’). For example:

  •  Arthur Birling refers to himself as a ‘hard-headed businessman’ because
  • Arthur Birling refers to himself as a ‘hard-headed businessman’ but
  • Arthur Birling perceives refers as a ‘hard-headed businessman’ so

 What I particularly like about these questions is that they really force pupils to think about their answers. They have to draw on their knowledge of the plot, characters and ideas. These sentence stems also provide pupils with the opportunity to practise writing out the kinds of sentences they might have to write in an extended piece of writing later, but without having to worry about everything else. As ever, starting with sentence-level drills aids and supports writing further down the line.

Precise Practice

These tasks alone won’t be enough to develop the skill of essay writing, but I think they are useful as they encourage us to start thinking about the most precise forms of practice to give pupils when they are learning how to write about texts. Rather than simply relying on paragraph or essay practice, we need to come up with cleverer ways to ensure pupils practise the right things and that teachers receive the most precise feedback. As ever, knowledge leads to greater and deeper knowledge, and helps to develop skills over time. Without the right kinds of practice, pupils are left without the tools required for developing the final skill. Continued practice of application and manipulation of knowledge is a crucial step in skill development: it simply cannot be overlooked.

What I Remember Doing in (Private) Primary School

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Current discussion of learning through play/sitting down at a desk in Reception/Year 1 made me realise I have absolutely no idea what a normal primary school/EYFS experience is like. I only ever went to private schools. What I’m going to do is write down what I can remember from each year of my education, in the hope that people tell me which bits are atypical and what they had instead. At best, this might be informative from both ends. At worst, it will be a boring take on Adrian Mole.

Playgroup: I remember learning how a hovercraft works and clambering around on a climbing frame.

Reception: I remember sitting in rows. Now and then we’d go through to the next room for a practical. Once, the teacher dropped a ball and asked us to shout out what made it fall (I was the only one who shouted out “gravity” #proud). We also each got a bottle of milk quite regularly. As this must have been around 1995, I suspect this was a ‘turn the clock back on Margaret Thatcher the milk-snatcher’ selling point.

Y1-2: I remember distinctly not being allowed to go out to play until I’d finished my disgustingly overcooked “veggies”. Despite my pitiable efforts to conceal them beneath my knife and fork, the teachers would almost always spot them and make me sit there miserably in self-imposed haricot-vert lunchtime detention.

The same lunch hall was used for school-wide handwriting drills. The woman who ran these was terrifying. I believe her name was Mrs Bamforth and she could have given any of Bertie Wooster’s aunts a run for their money. Utter a squeak and you’d be standing up and blushing bright red in front of the whole school before you knew it. She used to literally drop a pin before we started to check it was suitably silent.

I don’t remember much from lessons, other than acting out a scene from prehistory. I was cast as a sabre-tooth tiger and interrupted the teacher’s explanation of tool use by jumping across the river and making the early humans scream, which was funny, apparently.

Other memories include being told off for staring out of the window during French, being chosen to go and fetch the junior hacksaws (#proud) and incessant fire-drills.

I think our tables were DT tables, arranged in groups, obviously. I think we were streamed.

Y3-5: I moved to a stricter school, in Cambridge. Line-ups in the yard before lessons. Big classes. Old wooden desks that slam when you open them to get your pen out. Scary teacher who slams his metre-rule on the desk when it’s not silent. Being made to stand outside the head’s office if you were silly (#terrifying).

I believe, in Year 3, we read “Danny the Champion of the World” and “The Hobbit”. We got told off for writing stories that were too action-packed. I remember one egregious example of mine being about a theatre which put on a production of Macbeth but someone called it “Macbeth” instead of “The Scottish Play” which led to a massive cigarette-and-gas-canister-related explosion.

The maths teacher must have been training because there was an observer at the back of the room all the time. All I remember from maths was writing the date out long-form and hating maths. I enjoyed science, though. We also had “creative writing” lessons in the IT room which was, I think, an attempt to teach us touch-typing.

There was CCTV, which I attempted to use as protection against being duffed up by the school bully, before it came apparent that the man watching the CCTV couldn’t care less. I remember making an impassioned complaint about the ethos of the school after someone went into the changing room and disembowelled my sports bag. The reply from my teacher was a dismissive “you don’t have a problem with the ethos of the school”.

I think the school must have realised its main accountability measure was the school play. There were endless rehearsals, overseen by an increasingly stressed headmaster. Honestly, we must have spent more time on the bloody play than any academic subject.

I remember quite a lot of colouring in Jesus in RS. I also remember studying St Lucia in geography. The teacher had taken it upon herself to make card passports branded “Pelican Airways” (our school emblem was a pelican drawing blood from itself). I found this use of her time so hilariously pointless that I got sent out for uncontrollably laughing.

Y6: New school! I got sent out from French for making annoying comments. In my defence, the teacher had arranged the desks in groups. We did Macbeth in English and the teacher was very nice about my alternative witches’ chant (#proud). The RS teacher taught us a lot about every religion and after impartially assessing the central tenets of each, I decided I wanted to be Jewish. The teacher was very pleased and invited me to her office to try some matzah bread.

DT and IT were great. I soldered and painted a spitfire with lights and noises controlled by a script I wrote on Microsoft Visual Basic (#proud). I also spent way too much time on projects on two-stroke engines and the development of ironclad battleships during the American Civil War.

There was a very charismatic drama teacher whose lessons on Great Expectations I remember vividly. We caused scandal during the school play by leaving our microphones on while backstage and talking about who fancied who.

Y7-8: New school! The Latin teacher was simultaneously the most insane and the most effective teacher ever. He regularly took a misbehaving child outside and bellowed. He had a different Blackadder-inspired innuendo for every facet of Latin grammar.

I was actually shocked by the poor behaviour. The boys were arrogant and disrespectful, especially in French. I got into a fight with one of the main culprits, which resulted in my suspension and his expulsion.

In English, we read The Cruel Sea and possibly Lord of the Flies. I was referred for extra handwriting lessons. In geography, we learnt loads. The teachers would put notes up on the OHP and annotate them while we annotated our copies. By the end of the year we’d have an absolutely enormous lever-arch file on everything from longshore drift to flood defences in Bangladesh. If we complained, he’d threaten to take us down to the cricket nets and bowl 80 mph at us.

We did end up doing a project (probably to kill time after the May exams). Mine was a survey of every shop on the high street and its wheelchair-accessibility.

Summary: As far as I remember, there was no learning through play. Teachers explained things, told us off, and made us learn. Was that basically the same everywhere?


Is all practice effective?

Back in my early years of teaching- in the high-pressure ‘Special Measures’ school where I cut my teeth- I spent hours planning lessons that aimed to get kids through the GCSE as quickly as possible. I think lots of teachers are in the same boat. The high stakes accountability system puts the pressure on, and in many cases this can warp the curriculum and the way that we teach.


In the mad rush to get pupils better at the skills required for the GCSE, we teach the skills required for the GCSE directly. In my subject, English, this might mean getting pupils to practise writing a paragraph every lesson with the longer term objective being to improve their paragraph writing skills- a skill they need to demonstrate in the exam.


But isn’t this a bit like suggesting that, in order to get better at marathon running, you should run more marathons?


Not all forms of practice are equal


In my earlier teaching years I was under the illusion that the skill of writing good analytical paragraphs could be developed by practising writing lots of analytical paragraphs. But this, as Daisy Christodoulou makes clear in her excellent book ‘Making Good Progress’, is ineffective. Counter-intuitively, as Daisy explains, practising a skill directly doesn’t do much to develop that skill.


In the same way that a couch potato isn’t going to get up and run a marathon without any training, a weak writer isn’t going to be able to write a perceptive, analytical paragraph without a lot of baby steps beforehand- no matter how many times they’ve been shown to write a perceptive, analytical paragraph. Literary analysis is a complex skill made up of lots of smaller pieces of knowledge (and indeed, other, less complex skills, themselves comprised of more knowledge).


After a lot of thinking, this began to make sense to me. But why is it the case that practising analytical writing won’t actually do much to develop analytical writing skills? What makes someone a ‘weak writer’? And for that matter, what makes someone a good writer? In this post, I want to explain why I think it’s a bad idea teach skills directly. In my next post, I’ll discuss some alternatives.


Analytical writing skills aren’t transferrable


I’d say I have written a couple of reasonably good literature essays over the years. Does that mean I could write a decent microbiology essay? Unlikely!


Okay, I admit that example could be written off as a straw man, so how about this: I could probably write a good Othello essay, but could I write a good Much Ado about Nothingessay? Probably not- I barely know Much Ado. I’d need to spend a long time reading it, watching different versions, reading around it, thinking about it deeply, and so on. And I would wager that I wouldn’t be able to write as perceptively about Much Ado as I would about Othello because I haven’t been thinking about it in as much depth for as long. I knowOthello pretty well, and the more I think about it, the more I see in it. It’d take me years to bring my Much Ado knowledge up to the level of my Othello knowledge.


In fact, I would even go so far as to say that I can write a better Othello essay now than I could when I studied it for A level. And I wouldn’t say that is necessarily because my analytical writing skills have improved (like I say, I’d still write an appalling Much Adoessay)- but rather, it’s largely because I have read and thought about Othello several times since then, and so my knowledge and understanding of the play have deepened.


Similarly, if writing a good Much Ado essay was dependent on my essay writing skills being good, then I’d be able to write one just fine because I’ve already proven that I can write a good Othello essay. But again, that seems unlikely.


It is difficult to transfer skills between domains. Knowing what the text is about is crucial to being able to write about it. This is why pupils struggle so much with ‘unseen’ exam questions: if they are given a text that they really don’t understand or know anything about, they are far less likely to be able to write something perceptive about it- even if they have been drilled and drilled and drilled in analytical paragraph writing skills. They could have written a brilliant essay on another text, but on a text they don’t understand, they are scuppered.


Missed opportunities


The other downside of teaching skills directly is that pupils miss out on the opportunity to practise getting to know the content better. In English, I’d much rather pupils spent time discussing and thinking about the characters in Macbeth, or getting to grips with complex Shakespearean language, than practising writing exam-style paragraphs. Knowing the text inside out is far more likely to yield results than pumping out PEE paragraphs every lesson.


Content matters most 


We shouldn’t let the pressure of impending exams shift our focus too far from the content itself. If we prioritise knowing the content inside-out, our pupils stand a much greater chance of succeeding in the exam when the time comes.


This has massive implications for assessments and for teaching. Next week, I’ll have a go at offering some suggestions for more focused practice activities.