Reflecting on… key takeaways from #rEDOxford

We were lucky enough to have ResearchEd right on our doorstep this weekend.  An absolutely packed event with some excellent speakers, despite the train strikes.  Over 20 staff from our Trust attended and here are some key takeaways from the sessions we chose.

Keynote:  Learning To Read, Kathy Rastle

Quote:  “How are we going to spell 40+ sounds with 26 letters?  That, in a nutshell, is the problem of English spelling?”  (Crystal, 2012)

I had expected this to be of limited relevance to secondary, but I was very wrong.  Professor Kathy Rastle’s talk on the importance of phonics in learning to read, and its efficiency in light of the nature of our alphabet was fascinating and should be heard by teachers from all settings.  Some key takeaways for secondary included:

  1. The sheer difficulty of the task of learning to read in English; a hugely complicated task and a ten year journey.
  2. Regardless of age, the importance of using phonics to teach struggling readers how the alphabet works, at any age.
  3. The power of morphology to help make the relationship between words clear and increase vocabulary – by approximately 7 times.  

Takeaway from Chris White:  “the importance of students actually reading along rather than just listening.”  A really key part of the reading programme if it is to support younger readers.

Morphology: opening up a vast vocabulary for young people.

Epiphenomena:  Claire Stoneman @stoneman_claire

In this session, Stoneman talked about how easy it is for school leaders to get distracted by epiphenomena (things which accompany but do not cause event).  Our tendency to observe surface and novel features rather than look in depth and with great care can draw us to the new or to investing time in solutions which do not actually have the highest leverage at that point in our school’s journey.  

Claire gave many examples of trends in education which could easily be seen as ‘lethal mutations’ and explored how they might be very important and high-impact strategies when delivered with fidelity, but not when just ‘ported’ from one setting to another, without a deep understanding.  Her advice was targeted at leaders, but I think it equally applies to any classroom teacher bring a new strategy to their practice :

  1.  Be sceptical and question surface features to ensure that you really understand why they are there and that your attention has been guided to the deep reasons.
  2. Don’t allow the focus (e.g. the new innovation) to drown out subsidiary awareness of all the other important thing that interrelate; keep an eye on that bigger picture to analyse what is really gong on.
  3. “Be students of our schools.” (Evans, 2019); explore what is going on in dept, looking at a range of data with a ‘quiet eye’.  Consider carefully how new ideas might translate to the specific context in which we work.
  4. Ensure that we make decisions the best we can based on rational arguments: encourage questioning, different viewpoints, discussions and disagreement.

Building a Strong Professional Culture to Support Teacher Learning and Improve Pupil Outcomes: Cat Scutt @catscutt 

“Teachers becoming more expert in their areas of strength may have more benefit than focusing on areas of weakness.”  (Cat Scutt, summarising Dylan Wiliam).

This was probably the most packed session I attended all day; 40 minutes flew by as exciting ideas followed rapidly one after the other.  The importance of teacher autonomy and strong behaviour policies to professional culture and teacher retention were justifiably emphasised.  Ways to build a strong culture of professional learning were explored and explained effectively.  These ideas apply to schools as a whole but also anyone trying to build a strong development culture in their team: departmental, pastoral or sub-group.  Rather than try to summarise so much useful material, I have a shot of the penultimate slide as the ideas were all mapped together in a cohesive whole.  

Factors driving a strong professional culture and improving pupil outcomes.

Communication in Schools: How to Say What you want, to get what you mean:  Nimish Lad (@nlad84) and Lekha Sharma (@teacherfeature2)

One key takeaway from this session, also a feature of others’ talks over the course of the day, is the importance of psychological safety for a team to thrive.  If people are going to disagree, question ideas and communicate productively it is vital that they feel safe to do so.  However, more than this, Edmonson’s research in the field of medicine, has shown that the highest-performing teams were not those that made the fewest errors but the most.  What they had in common was the psychological safety to make mistakes, report these openly and learn from each other.  There is every reason to  think that this would apply equally well in the field of education.

The Research Behind High-performing teams and how to lead them in schools: Samuel Crome (@Mr_Crome)

In schools we all belong to multiple teams with whom we interact on a daily, weekly or termly basis.  Even when not sharing a space as a team (e.g. when in a meeting) we are still part of that team as we move around school, perform duties and, of course, interact with students.  Crome’s extensive research has led him to conclude that the foundation trait of high-performing teams is belonging.  It is the sense of belonging which lays the groundwork for psychological safety, effective communication, healthy conflict  a shared vision and all the other features of successful teams.  For anyone leading a team, Chrome offered 4 “best bets” for building a high functioning team:

  1.  Mental models and knowledge: definite, codify, share and increase.
  2. Communication: plan carefully, consult team and agree, develop a shared system.
  3. Meetings and debriefs: focus on sharing knowledge, give ownership, review processes regularly (not when something goes wrong).
  4. Create a culture of team learning and development: build a coaching ‘way of being’.

Other key takeaways and useful ideas:

In her talk on assessment myths, Christodoulou defended the GCSE system and explored the reality behind such myths as that other countries do not have exams like these, that teacher assessment modules or coursework provide more valid insights and even that exams don’t help learning.

From Andy Lewis’ talk on ‘Making Humanities 6395% Better’ Gemma Ridley took away insights into the importance of selecting your anecdotes and stories very carefully to enhance rather than obscure learning.  The gruesome, horrific and memorable can often dominate students’ recollection of the important points and stories need to be used with care and skill.

 Alex Fairlamb’s talk on diversity within the curriculum gave Gemma Fulton a key takeaway when she noted that, whilst teaching white working-class boys in Sunderland “I didn’t need to teach them to look in the mirror; I needed to teach them to look out the window to learn about the rest of the world.”

Barriers to bringing research into classrooms: not at #rEDOxford

Reflecting on … “Pitch Perfect” Modelling

Although occasionally confused with showing students a model answer, most teachers are familiar with the idea of “modelling” as an active process.  When modelling, we seek to work through problems with students in order to demonstrate our thought processes, decision making, the steps that lead to a solution and how we overcome difficulties.  

Research suggests that modelling is one of the key common approaches in effective teaching as it is a highly efficient way to support the learning of new skills (Bandura, 1986) which helps students build problem-solving schema (Sweller, 1986), avoid misconceptions (Lemov, 2012).

However it can be hard to pitch modelling well to support students’ learning, especially when prior attainment is limited and we are working with novice learners.  Some common errors that creep into modelling include:

  • Showing students an “excellent” answer without them building an understanding of the learning journey to get there.  Although looking at end-product work can be highly motivating, it can have the opposite effect if students find it daunting and cannot see how they might achieve such success.
  • Being too good. For many of the same reasons, when we, as teachers, model problem-solving we often want to show students the best techniques.  As we glide through a problem, “thinking aloud” to demonstrate how we (always) select the best strategies and retain our confidence through the most difficulty spots the gap between ourselves and our students can feel like an unbridgeable chasm to those who are struggling.

How, then, might we use modelling to support learning without falling into these traps?  

Whenever modelling, it is very important that we ensure students have a turn to apply what they have learned as soon as possible after seeing the model.  The EEF recommends “alternating” between teacher and student.  So instead of an ‘I … we … you’ approach we may have  “I … we … I … you … I … you … I … you” within a single lesson.  (Or something  more creative than this.)  The key is that we achieve perfect pitch by switching back and forth between student and teacher as they build confidence and mastery to gently but steadily increase the level of challenge, rather than hit them with high level problems early on.  

In doing so, there are a number of modelling strategies that help to focus on overcoming confidence and skill barriers and pitching modelling perfectly to students who may be struggling and/or lacking in confidence.  It is worth considering deploying these extensively.

  1.  Coping Modelling:  coping models are those where we do not demonstrate our “mastery” of material with perfect completion, positive attitudes and the best strategies easily deployed.  Instead we plan our modelling by thinking carefully about the difficulties, errors and misconceptions that might be common to novice learners.  Rather than trotting out the perfect, top-level model answer, we use our “thinking aloud” to empathise with difficulty, show hesitations and errors and demonstrate gradual improvement ending with an answer that is better than our students’ but far from perfect.  Braamska et al (2002) point out that seeing a weaker (coping) model will normalise the struggle that students experience whilst demonstrating how to overcome these challenges and become better.  Obviously, over time, our models will move closer and closer to the mastery model as we build students’ confidence and skills.
  2. Partial Answers:  At times, novice learners seem to struggle with what appear to be basic concepts.  One reason for this might be cognitive overload; although able to complete each step individually, learners cannot bring the whole together, as there is too much to remember, solve and connect.   Partial completion answers are an effective tool in allowing learners to practise what we have modelled without becoming overloaded.  As we switch from modelling the solution to allowing learners to have a go, it may not be advisable to jump straight to full problem-solving.  Instead we may offer learners “partially completed” problems where there role is to practise certain steps of the solution.  By switching from runs of “similar” steps (where they practise the same step several times) to dissimilar (where different parts of the solution are faded out), we can build learners’ familiarity with each step of the problem without overload.  This then helps manage the cognitive load and builds up to learners completing a full solution independently.
  3. Comparative Modelling:  For a number of subjects where there is a high element of subjectivity in marking and assessment, comparative marking is currently being extensively used.  A similar technique can be used when showing students model answers and example work.  Just like their teachers, even when unable to accurately pinpoint the strengths and weaknesses of an individual answer, they can often compare differences and develop a good feel for a better answer.  This helps them to understand what the examiner is looking for, without being overwhelmed by the gulf between their own work and “perfection”, especially when the example answers are pitched appropriately to their level, and slightly above.  We can then model the steps that might be taken  to improve the weaker answer, before encouraging students to implement these themselves.

There are, of course, other ways to break down modelling and pitch it closely to the needs of novice learners.  However these three research-informed techniques are each powerful and have applicability across a wide range of subjects, and I have found them to be well worth trying with novice learners of all ages.  

Questions that support my reflection when planning modelling activities:

  1. What are the common barriers and misconceptions that learners face here and how will I pre-empt these or teach students to work through them in a way that acknowledges that this is normal?
  2. What will a struggling learner find most daunting about this process and how do I show empathy with those difficulties as a step to mastery rather than a barrier?
  3. What part of this process can my learners most successfully master next in order to achieve progress without overwhelming them?

Reflecting on … inclusive language to raise aspirations

When I started teaching it was still common to hear teachers talk of students in the language of intelligence.  On one end of the spectrum were those who were “bright, able, clever” and on those others those who were “low ability, slow” or worse.  Government policy was still that schools had to identify those students who were “able, gifted and talented” and offer alternative and additional provision for these students.  The cut-off line was brutal and far from inclusive.  On the one hand you had those who, through a combination of SATs results, reading age and CAT scores had been identified as “gifted” and those just below the line as those who were not.  

We have recently been looking at the language used in school and noting the continued presence of some of these assumptions. Whilst thinking has moved on a lot, underlying assumptions and biases have not necessarily shifted far enough.   A focus on advantage versus disadvantage and cultural capital has not eliminated biases around “ability”, “weakness” and “talent”.  These assumptions creep into our report writing and our exams analysis.  And, if we hold these ideas, almost certainly into our teaching.

Admittedly, they are most strongly (though not exclusively) present in language which could be seen to reflect a positive bias.  Describing a student as “able” or “naturally talented” in a report or progress meeting doesn’t instantly seem like a major problem.  So what are the issues?

To challenge this language, you do not have to believe that no person is more intelligent or talented than any other.  However, even if you hold this view, it is worth asking yourself the following questions:

  • How often can culture, opportunity and social environment disguise themselves as gifts, talents or natural abilities?  Is it inclusive to identify some students as possessing gifts we value and other students as lacking these?  
  • How good are teachers, or the kinds of data we have, at distinguishing between talent or intelligence and other factors such as hard work and effective study skills.  (Yes, almost any teacher who has been teaching a while will have a handful of examples of this.  Enough for confirmation bias to kick in, to be sure.  But enough to say, that of all the hundreds of students we encounter and teach, we can reliably tell the difference.  Really think about it for a minute or two.)
  • Even if some students are naturally talented whilst others inherently lack ability, and you personally defy the odds and are able to identify these with a high degree of certainty, how does it help to do so?  What should it change about your attitude to that student, the support you’re willing to offer a student who is doing really well or one who is struggling and your behaviour and attitude towards the rest of the class?

Motivation research suggests that when we attribute success to fixed, internal traits there is real potential to damage motivation.  Students who are told that their abilities are “natural talents” tend to become more risk averse and less willing to make mistakes.  Errors, instead of being learning experiences, can become challenges to their very sense of identity, undermining their status and esteem.  

Our approach is built around the idea that, as teachers, our thinking and our language should emphasise those things that we can most effectively support students to change.  As such we want to use language that supports the idea of positive change and progress for all students.  This has three key strands:

  1. Negative language which focuses on the individual or any fixed or inherent traits should be challenged.  Instead of using terms such as “weak” or “low ability” we need to recognise that what we are seeing is prior and current attainment.  To be inclusive and constructive, comments should focus on learning behaviours that are within students’ control to develop (with support).  For example, settling quickly to work, attempting challenging tasks and responding to feedback.  
  2. This also applies to “positive” language if it focuses on fixed traits such as “talent” or “ability”. Again, the focus should be on learning behaviours which are supporting success.  What matters is whether the individual responds to feedback, learns from errors and tackles challenging problems.  Rather than language which praises things such as “natural talent” or gifts, we aim to focus on the learning strategies that are creating success, or maximising the positive impact of any underlying gifts that the individual is lucky enough to possess.
  3. Traits and personality should be commented on only with caution, if at all.  Too often we can find ourselves identifying a student as having “low confidence” or putting in “too little effort”.  These aren’t, of course, fixed traits and can be developed and change.  However in terms of the language of teachers, a focus on these things can carry similar risks.  For example, judging someone’s confidence levels relies heavily on either students’ self-reporting or inference from learning behaviours.  Either of these can be unreliable but, most importantly, a focus on these things doesn’t necessarily effect positive change.  For example, if a student is reluctant to answer questions, identifying them as having “low confidence” is not a satisfactory outcome, and may not be much of a beginning.  Instead, we need to think about the activities and challenges we can set that would support the student in experiencing success, whilst also encouraging students to engage in behaviours that are likely to lead to this success, such as applying earlier feedback to new problems, or attempting problems even when anxious.

As a result of this thinking we are reviewing the language we use when reporting on students to shift away from judgements on “attitude”, “effort” and “talents” and focus instead on learning behaviours.  We are challenging ourselves to notice and reflect when such language drops into our progress meetings and faculty sessions.  

Of course, changing language doesn’t automatically change how people think and feel, much less outcomes.  But in becoming aware of our language and the unconscious bias carried by concepts such as “weak”, “talented”, “able” we take a step towards changing the way we think.  We reduce the risk of feeding helplessness through over-use of judgements about confidence or effort.  Instead we can refocus our thoughts and actions on the learning behaviours which  have the potential to effect positive change.  And we can open a dialogue about the role of both teachers and students in building better outcomes for all students, not just the few.  

Questions that help me to reflect on the language I use about students:

  • Am I commenting on something I or the student can actually change or a fixed trait or quality that is beyond the control of the classroom?
  • Am I really sure that I can attribute this quality to students?  Could positive (or negative) learning behaviours disguise themselves as this and what would be the most effective way to change these?
  • Is the language I am using going to encourage me and others (including the student) to aim high and reach for greater success?  Will it build or limit motivation and will it actually provide a useful guide for development?

Reflecting on … Developmental Lesson Observations

What are the problems with lesson observations?

Lesson observations have long been an established part of teacher assessment and development.  However their ability to do either of these things has increasingly been questioned.  The EEF’s research into lesson observations found no impact on student outcomes, even when teachers did manage to fit them into their busy schedules.   Research from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation concluded that judgements were subjective and unlikely to be shared by two observers, even with training that focused on removing subjectivity and bias.  And Dylan Wiliam’s research (2010) found that the feedback has little impact on changing teachers’ practice.  Quite rightly, Ofsted abolished judgements of lesson observations in 2014 in line with the overwhelming evidence that they lacked reliability, validity or impact.  

Why do lesson observations go wrong?

In light of this evidence, it may be tempting to abolish lesson observations completely.  However this would be an extreme conclusion to draw from the evidence.  As anyone who has supported new teachers or coached or been supportively coached by a colleague will tell you, lesson observations can be supportive and helpful.  The problem is that they are often not these things.  In order to make them effective, we need to understand why they don’t work in the first place.  For this, we need to understand the following problems, which underpin the findings above.  

  1. Lesson observations are too often “done to” teachers  rather than treating the professional as the expert in the classroom.
  2. Judgement is inherently unreliable as there is so much nuance and context that goes into planning and delivering a lesson that cannot be observed.
  3. Too often the focus is on changing the way that teachers behave (because this is all we can observe), rather than the way they think.  The lesson observation sits in isolation from meaningful professional development.
  4. Observers look for or try to reach judgements on things that cannot be observed, such as “effort” or “thinking” (either on the part of the students or the teacher).
  5. Judgements make teachers feel defenceless (or defensive) and so they “put on a show” rather than showing their true teaching. Thus feedback cannot support effective development.
  6. Lesson observers focus on imparting wisdom and practice from their own teaching rather than understanding what the observee is seeking to achieve and supporting them to meet their own goals.  The classic “this is how I would have done it…”.

The whole experience can be deprofessionalising, stressful and a waste of precious time.  So why not abolish them?  Because lesson observations can be done better and this is what our programme of developmental lesson observations seeks to achieve.

How do developmental lesson observations work and why do we do things this way?

  1. The lesson observation focuses on an area of practice that the teacher has been working on over a period of time:  lesson observations link to the themes of our professional learning groups.  The teacher has chosen which group to join and so has ownership of their own developmental focus for the year.
  2. The lesson observation is planned jointly with the observer and observee:  both share their ideas at the planning stage. This brings a sense of shared ownership but also a deeper understanding of the thinking behind the lesson plan and activities which are being observed.  The planning meeting should be given plenty of time and generally takes longer than the feedback if done properly.  
  3. An agreed and precise focus for the lesson observation is set by the observee:    the aim is that it should be something that is a new strategy or a pedagogical development for the teacher.  This gives the observer a clear focus and the observee a sense of ownership of what is being observed and why.  The focus is precise and observable and should be something the teacher is doing and potentially can change.  For example, an observer would not look at student confidence or motivation in answering questions (trying to guess what they are feeling and what is in their heads) but  might look at equity of questioning and patterns of student selection, or think time offered, or phrasing of questions – things that the teacher controls and which may support the greater goal of increasing student motivation or confidence.
  4. The observer is chosen for their expertise:  instead of observations being carried out by line managers as the default model.  Instead learning group leads or teachers with experience of the observees particular focus are given cover to be available for lesson observations to ensure that planning and feedback is in line with the teacher’s own goals.  Subject leads will still be involved in at least one observation a year to ensure input from subject specialists.  But the goal is not judgement or monitoring and the structure of the observation pairings reflects this.
  5. The feedback is strictly focused on the precise objectives agreed: the meeting  is short and focused, as both parties review the evidence gathered. The observer’s main role is to provide data to help the teacher (the expert on that class in that subject, let us remember) to reach a judgement about how well the lesson strategy met their goals for the class and how they might develop it further in the future.  Other discussion is off the table; this is not a general, sweeping review of someone’s teaching, with the observer feeling pressured to provide “development points”, however trivial or tangential to the focus.
  6.  Considerations for future practice are “owned” by the teacher:  the final steps of reflection are considerations for future practice in taking the strategy forward. This can be led by the observer or the observee depending upon the nature of the feedback discussion, and may involve identification of next steps, or further support.  However the ownership of these sits with the teacher and they can seek further support and engage in further experimentation logging their actions and reflections in a shared reflective log as part of the ongoing professional learning group.

This model of lesson observation seems empowering both as a teacher and an observer.  In both roles I feel more comfortable and the process feels far more natural and productive than using the traditional model.    Obviously there is no way to measure the impact of this specific innovation amongst everything else.  However my experience has been that the feedback I have received has been much more focused and useful to my development than previously – it is something that fits with my own development goals and helps me effectively reflect on my practice.   Our staff feedback supports this view.  Even if this is not 100% achieved, if lesson observations can be conducted in a way that empowers teachers, respects their professionalism and leaves them in control of the learning in their own classroom then I’m all for them!

Questions that help me to get the most out of a developmental observation:

What am I currently developing in my own teaching?  What new strategies am I trying to deploy with my classes?

Where am I least confident in my delivery or outcomes e.g. in what area of my teaching could I most benefit from support and guidance?  Which aspect of content, lesson planning, or which sub-group of students might make a useful focus?

What would I like to better understand about my own teaching at the end of the observation?  What data could an observer gather that would help me better reflect on my own teaching than just being alone with my class?

Reflecting on … The Impact of Seating Arrangements on Learners

Most experienced teachers have strong opinions on what might make a good seating arrangement:  groups or rows, genders split or grouped, mixing or grouping prior attainment and, of course, ‘doughnutting’ certain students. As with most educational research, research into seating plans cannot tell teachers exactly what to do.  In the case of those with detailed knowledge of their students, context and school culture it may contribute very little.  But sometimes it raises questions or considerations that are worth giving some thought to, even if we’re generally happy with what we’re doing.  And perhaps it can offer some valuable pointers for improvement in a few key areas or for those new to the issues.

Rows or groups?

Wannarka and Ruhl (2008) compared rows, clusters and semi-circles.  They found that rows promoted better behaviour and decreased off-task behaviour.  Research has also shown an increase in the quantity of work for individual tasks when students were sat in rows.  Particularly benefitting from row seating were students who were:  easily distracted, including those with ADHD and those with SEND that might make over-stimulation and noisy environments uncomfortable.

However, this does not mean that rows are the only acceptable arrangement and the nature of the task, especially when students are engaged in discussion, can absolutely favour a grouped arrangement.  But it is worth bearing in mind that rows might support:

  • establishing high expectations and promote on-task behaviour.
  • If students need to spend a long time looking at the board and working individually or in pairs.

Physical Alignment

It is important to note that a number of students also report discomfort caused by other seating arrangements.  If you are using clusters or semi-circles it is well worth trying out different seats as a teacher.  What is in the line of vision that might distract from the main learning? How easy is it to see the board and how do you have to reposition yourself to look from the main display to your workbook? 

Physically looking up and down is less of a strain on our neck and back muscles than twisting side-to-side.  If a seat requires a lot of twisting or neck turning, consider carefully the challenges and discomfort this might create over an hour’s learning.


Our January INSET focused on thinking about students with SEMH issues, especially those with trauma. For children who are anxious, trauma or persistently absent, it can be hard to feel part of the school community. They are less familiar with routines than most of our students, can have difficulty building trust and so find it hard to ask for help or support, and being put on-the-spot e.g. asked questions or in the “You do…” part of the lesson, they can find their fight-or-flight response triggered.

Harry Daniel’s research into connectedness shows that, for some students, sitting near people they feel comfortable with can have powerful learning benefits.  This particularly applies to those who are persistently absent, anxious in the classroom or who struggle to maintain attention.  Sitting near students they know and feel comfortable around can support their learning by calming anxiety and helping them to seek support when they need it.  They are also more likely to participate in discussion and group activities.  This can include students who when uncertain about a task, choose to cause disruption or engage in off-task behaviour rather than ask for support.  

In using this strategy it should be noted that off-task behaviour can certainly increase, and this can present challenges.  With certain classes, groups, or individuals it may not, therefore, be the best approach.  However it is worth remembering that students who want to sit nearer their friends or who express discomfort with the seating plan may learn better if some accommodation is made to support this.

Social Inclusion

Left to their own devices, students (and adults) will normally sit with those they are most comfortable with, which is generally students they already know and like.  There are certain times when this can be problematic and transition is one such time.  This is also particularly difficult for some students – such as those with connectedness issues for reasons discussed above. 

In the past, I have been inclined to let Sixth Form students seat themselves (more adult).  However, in recent years, as our Sixth Form has expanded, I have become increasingly aware of students clustering by previous school (and gender).  This can mean it takes longer to create classroom dynamics where all students feel comfortable working with each other, and so they don’t necessarily benefit from hearing views from outside their own “echo chamber” in the way I would like.  However, even more, I am concerned about those students who spend their first weeks in Sixth Form on the edge of things, even in classrooms, unsure who to talk to and navigating awkward social dynamics.

It is well worth considering seating plans for all groups, even  Year 12s and tutor groups.  Build in integration between those from different backgrounds and schools.   Create activities and tasks where students have to work with each other and start to get to know each other.  I will tend to shake things up quite regularly (much more so than with a mixed attaining class of 32) in the early weeks, to get all students working with different people.  This provides a much nicer and more welcoming introduction to the school for new students, and helps to break down some established social barriers.   

Who sits at the back?

In the past, I have tended to see the front of the classroom as a space to sit those who need most help and those whose behaviour is most likely to need correction.

However I have become more creative after reading  behavioural research on modelling and noting that students take behavioural cues from those around them especially those in front of them.  This can be useful to bear in mind when planning seating with those students who might benefit from behavioural guidance.  When they look up will they see students who exhibit the learning behaviours we aspire to instil; settling to work quickly, staying on-task, seeking help when needed?  Some students may do a little better off further back where they can see others engaging with the learning culture rather than being right at the front and being the model for the class.  

Who am I helping?

As with many things in education, the key question isn’t what “generally” works.  We know that many children come to the classroom with material, physical, cultural and other advantages that help them cope even with challenging situations or the times when our teaching practice falls short of our own ideals.  The key question, then, is rarely whether what I am doing works for “some” or even “most” children.  Rather it is whether I can enhance my practice to better support those who come with less privilege and who might find the educational environment challenging for any one of a number of reasons.  It is in these cases that research into seating arrangements can be most helpful.

Some key questions that help me reflect on seating arrangements are:

  • Which students are the most vulnerable in this classroom and how will they experience this learning environment?
  • What do students need to look at, do and physically access in my lessons and is the arrangement equitable?
  • Who is getting the least good deal in this seating plan and how will I offset that?

For further reading, you might want to take a look at the following piece:

  • Wannarka R and Ruhl K (2008) Seating arrangements that promote positive academic and behavioural outcomes: A review of empirical research. Support for Learning 23: 89–93.

Reflecting on … the value of meeting and greeting students at the door

When first asked to start lessons by meeting and greeting students at the door I was sceptical.  I felt that I had well-established classroom routines, that didn’t really need disrupting.  Lesson changeover was often a useful time to grab a few minutes to check email and do other little jobs as one class entered and another left.  And I struggled to see what those who arrived punctually would gain from me being at the classroom door, instead of getting the lesson started. 

Undoubtedly the idea was nice and well-meaning, but was it really worth pushing?  Unfortunately for my biases, the research suggested that my instincts were wrong.  Allday et al (2011) found that it helped promote a prompt start and get students to work more quickly.  Bambara and Kern (2005) found that it created a positive environment for students who may be struggling with issues inside or outside of school.  And a host of other studies found it made an effective contribution to positive behaviour management (Gettinger; Kazdin; Little; Cook et al.). 

In giving it a go, I found the following:

  1. Lesson starts were not delayed; whilst I could not positively say that they were quicker, it was certainly not the case that those inside the classroom were slower to get out their files, equipment or get to the seat.  As I joined the last few entering the room the lesson was ready to go as quickly as I could want.
  2. It was a nice way to start the lesson; a friendly greeting to each student upon arrival set the tone in a very different way to barking reminders of routines whilst trying to reply to three emails at once and get the projector working.  I was more present in the lesson and this set the right tone for my students.
  3. Stragglers were more quickly brought into the classroom; especially when everyone was doing it.  All teachers were out on the corridors and so those who were dawdling were hurried into lessons leading to quicker starts all round.
  4. Little issues (e.g. uniform) could be addressed more effectively; students could be spoken to more discreetly and could fix any issues before entering the classroom.  As the lesson hadn’t started yet and they were still in the corridor, both they and I mentally conceptualised it as more of a reminder than a telling off, setting a much more positive tone all round.

This meant that there were also occasions where it was possible to pick up when a student was struggling or having a bad day and do something about it, or at least be aware, before the lesson started. 

For it to work best, I found the following helpful:

  • The presence of a “do now activity” (DNA) which the first students into the room can crack on with is really important.  (I normally have a recall quiz on the board for students to do as soon as they’re in.)  This way the positive behaviour instilled as students enter isn’t lost before you join them.
  • A culture of all teachers in the area doing the same (except those who are changing rooms, of course) is particularly powerful for promoting punctuality and positive behaviour in the corridors.
  • A particular focus on those who may need a positive start.  Whilst it is possible to greet every student as they arrive, meaningful conversations are not possible if the activity is to take only a few minutes.  However an awareness of who had a bad lesson previously, who might be generally anxious or who was absent the last lesson generally gave me a good focus for a little more interaction.   

Unfortunately, with COVID it was one of the first habits to do, for obvious and very sensible reasons.  With teachers moving rooms and, when students were present, stuck in their little 2m boxes at the front, meet-and-greet at the door was obviously not appropriate. 

However, now that things have settled back into something a little more normal, it seems a very important culture to bring back.  In order to create a culture of good behaviour in the corridors, promote mental wellbeing, encourage punctuality and speedy movement in lesson transitions, and generally promote a positive start to lessons, meeting and greeting students at the door is well worth the time. 

Questions to reflect on, to help maximise impact:

  1. What should the students do as they enter the room and how do they know to do this?
  2. How can I ensure this is a positive welcome? Can I “reframe” negatives as positives e.g. acknowledging those whose uniform is correct or restating expectations positively?
  3. Is there anything I want to tell them as they come in to stimulate interest in the lesson? (Let’s face it, 32 “good mornings” is just a little dull.)

Interested in the research?  Find out a little more here:

Cook, C. R., Fiat, A., Larson, M., Daikos, C., Slemrod, T., Holland, E. A.,  Renshaw, T. (2018). Positive Greetings at the Door: Evaluation of a Low-Cost, High-Yield Proactive Classroom Management Strategy. Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions20(3), 149-159.

Reflecting On… Ofsted Comments on the Curriculum

In the second of my blogs on curriculum thinking (for all team members), I have been reviewing Ofsted reports on a variety of schools (20) written under the new framework.  In exploring the aspects of curriculum design they have praised and those they have expressed concerns about we can better understand their thinking.  From this we can consider what they might want to explore about our own curriculum thinking.  It should be emphasised that this is not about changing our curriculum planning to fit an “Ofsted model” so much as ensuring we are thinking deeply about the questions they pose and that our curriculum discussions at all levels are robust.

Across a range of Ofsted reports, comments on a number of themes relating to curriculum planning and delivery recur in multiple reports.  

Curriculum Planning

Again and again, Ofsted identify the following strengths in different schools’ curricula:

  • Broad, balanced and tailored to students’ interests and needs; the curriculum is meaningful and ambitious
  • Important knowledge is clearly identified
  • Careers, SMSC, PSHE and reading are well-planned and embedded
  • Effectively structured and ordered (see previous blog on sequencing)

As an example, this quote from one report pulls together a number of these themes in their findings:

“Subject leaders ensure the curriculum is effectively structured and ordered.  Starting points in lessons reflect what pupils already know or have learned during the pandemic.  Leaders’ plans provide teachers with detailed curriculum journeys for each year group and schemes of work for each subject.  The sixth-form curriculum is similarly comprehensive and challenging.”  

On the other hand, there are concerns with curriculum planning which recur in a number of reports:

  • Key knowledge is not clearly identified or sequences
  • Curriculum plans are not fully developed
  • There is a lack of engagement with ‘disciplinary knowledge’

For example, in one report, the inspectors wrote:

In a small number of subjects, including in the sixth form, leaders have not fully identified all the important knowledge that pupils need to learn. This weakness limits teachers’ ability to implement the planned curriculum.  As a result, pupils do not achieve as well as they should in these subjects.  Leaders should ensure that all curriculum plans set out the essential knowledge that staff will teach pupils.”

Curriculum Delivery

Again, the recurring themes for consideration seem to be:

  • Strong subject knowledge from teachers, with good professional development opportunities
  • Clear explanation of new knowledge
  • Teachers following leaders’ subject plans
  • Lessons which build on prior knowledge
  • Misconceptions recognised and tackled effectively

In a positive vein, the following would seem to be a typical assessment:

Teachers use their strong subject knowledge to provide clear explanations and help identify common errors and misconceptions.  They use assessment well to establish what pupils know and can remember.  This allows them to focus their lessons on appropriate next steps for the pupils.

However, in a number of reports, concerns were expressed about the following:

  • Non-specialist teachers leading to students getting an inconsistent experience across a subject area.
  • Curriculum plans that were not implemented consistently across the subject area.

For example, in one school:

Some are teaching outside their subject specialisms.  On occasion, this leads to misconceptions or gaps in understanding… As a result, in some subjects, pupils do not gain strong foundations on which to build their learning.  Leaders should provide ongoing support for those teaching outside their subjects wot that they know enough to properly excite and inform pupils’ learning.”   

The messages here are quite simple.  The curriculum intent and planning has to be shared by the whole team in order for delivery to be effective and consistent.  When new team members join, including non-specialists, they have to be effectively inducted into the subject.  They need to be supported with subject-specialist training and develop a clear understanding of the key information that they need to deliver, the thinking behind curriculum sequencing and the difficulties students commonly experience in the subject they are about to teach.  Detailed subject plans that make clear lesson sequencing and identify powerful knowledge can help with this. However they are not enough on their own without understanding of the thinking behind these.  

The responsibility for curriculum development and understanding does not just fall on subject leads.  Although they play an important role in providing space for discussion and quality CPD for their team, they do not “own” a curriculum which others deliver.  Rather the curriculum has to be owned and understood by all members of a teaching team.  Ofsted will probe this by triangulating subject leads’ messages with those delivering in the classroom.  They will ask about how lessons fall into planning sequences, what the key pedagogical choices behind delivery were and how the curriculum has been adapted to meet the needs of particular groups of students.  Without a strong understanding of the underlying curriculum thinking, teachers’ decisions and adaptations are likely to lead to inconsistency and may even cause confusion for students, rather than enhancing their understanding.  As such, we all bear some responsibility when teaching any subject for finding answers to the following questions:

  1.  What is the powerful knowledge, the really important information and skills that I am to deliver to these students over this time period?
  2. Why has this been selected and how does it fit into a bigger curriculum picture (even of years I don’t currently teach)?
  3. On what prior knowledge will I be building as I teach and how can I ascertain whether this is secure, even if I was not tasked with the original delivery?
  4. What are the common errors students make and misconceptions they develop at this level and how and when are they tackled?

Reflecting on… The importance of Curriculum Sequencing

What is Curriculum Sequencing and why is it important?

When many of us entered teaching there were very few curriculum “choices” that we faced.  Since the introduction of the National Curriculum (1988) most curriculum structures had been centrally directed and the main focus of subject leads was on quality of delivery.  We may have been given some limited choices over, for example, a particular topic within the KS3 framework, or the selection of the exam board used at KS4.  However, even at these levels, practical considerations (such as availability and cost of resources) often dominated.  For most subjects the 11-16 curriculum was highly prescriptive.

With the introduction of academies and their freedom to break away from the national curriculum this started to change, but even then the nature of high-quality curriculum design did not always dominate thinking.  The new Ofsted framework (2019) with its focus on curriculum intent represented a dramatic shift.  It redefined the role of schools (and as such subject leaders in schools) from one of successfully delivering a curriculum to one of designing and creating a curriculum.  The most important question rapidly shifted from “how” to “why”.  Why have you included that content?  Why do you teach that unit?  Why did you select that exam board?  Why that text, that skill, that topic?

Initially I think there was, quite naturally, a heavy focus on what we were teaching in many subjects.  We’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the most important things we want students to take away from our subjects are – often referred to as the “powerful knowledge”.  Some really important improvements have been made to curriculum content as a result of this thinking, such as the inclusion of more challenging texts, a deepened understanding of what “expert thinking” looks like and work to build a more inclusive, decolonised curriculum.

However, curriculum thinking needs to go beyond that.  When we think about our curriculum it is important to consider not just what it has in it, but when different skills and topics are taught and when they are reviewed and revisited.  It is this level of thinking that we are referring to when we talk about “curriculum sequencing”.  It is important that we think carefully about when we teach certain topics and skills and do not just deliver them in a particular order “because we always have”.  

In some cases, curriculum sequencing choices can seem obvious.  In PE, for example, certain sports are likely to be seasonal, and in history chronological sequencing naturally determines some choices of topic ordering.  However, we do need to think more deeply than this.  How are skills and new vocabulary mapped into our teaching so as to create a logical progression without overwhelming students?  When do opportunities for diversity and a global perspective arise and why are they positioned at that point in our teaching?

Boosting The Impact of your Curriculum Sequencing

A well-designed curriculum will have the greatest impact if it draws on a range of strategies.  As a result questions about curriculum sequencing do not sit in isolation.   These generally rely on having a very clear idea of the most important things students have to take from each unit – the “powerful knowledge”.  Some key considerations for planning include:

  1. Spaced Practice and Interleaving:  Cognitive research suggests that one valuable ‘desirable difficulty’ for pupils is if several topics are taught at the same time (interleaving).  It also suggests that rather than teaching a topic in a single “block” pupils’ learning should be distributed over time, with important topics revisited at intervals.  This generates some obvious questions about curriculum sequencing, most importantly When do pupils revisit this topic?’
  2. Misconceptions: A future blog will focus on pupil misconceptions.  However at this stage it is simply important to note that pupils bring a number of misconceptions to the study of many topics and often accumulate others along the way.  Tackling some of these too early can actually add to confusion, if understanding requires high-level knowledge that has not yet been delivered.  On the other hand, leaving misconceptions to fester can confuse later understanding and lead to students not having a secure grasp of a significant number of topics.  The curriculum needs to be planned in a way that foundational knowledge is built carefully and securely and misconceptions are identified and tackled at the appropriate time.  Questions for consideration when planning a curriculum is therefore include ‘What are the common misconceptions pupils have/develop about this topic?’ and, crucially, ‘When are these tackled in your curriculum plan … and why then?
  3. Vocabulary Mapping: One important shared goal behind our curriculum is the development of our students’ literacy.  Alongside the core powerful knowledge and skills we wish to teach, careful mapping of new vocabulary can be a valuable part of curriculum sequencing.  If our students are to leave school able to talk and write like mathematicians, scientists and literary critics we have to give them the linguistic tools so to do.  The question of ‘When do students learn key tier 3 vocabulary?is thus an important one for consideration in curriculum discussions.  

Moving Forwards

If you are a subject lead then consider the following steps:

  • Read about what other schools have done.  The Chartered College of Teaching’s Impact journal has a wide range of case studies across different subjects.  You don’t have to follow their model, but you can explore their thinking and apply it to our context.
  • Have a discussion within your team.  If you are new to the setting explore the thinking behind why things are taught at the point they are – is there a clear rationale based on students’ learning?  Or is it poorly understood, inherited from previous incarnations of the curriculum or driven by resource limitations?
  • Start simply.  Make some basic decisions about the sequencing of your curriculum, e.g. topic order and ensure these are communicated clearly to the teaching team, including part-timers and non-specialists.

If you are a classroom teacher it is also important to understand the thinking behind curriculum teaching.  This can affect adjustments that you may make to your teaching in response to student needs.  Ofsted will be asking teachers across a department (including non-specialists) about the intent behind the curriculum plan during deep dives.  If you are unsure, or new to a team then consider the following steps:

  • Ask the subject lead to explain the curriculum thinking; not just what is being taught and when but why.  Ensure you have a clear grasp of the powerful knowledge and skills sequencing so that you are ready to deliver these effectively to students.
  • Consider requesting further discussion about sequencing in faculty time – sometimes, especially in a team where staffing has been stable, decisions are inherited, and the rationale behind things is forgotten or no longer applies.  A new team member can provoke important thinking by asking questions about why things are done in the way they are and help to develop the whole team’s understanding of the curriculum thinking.
  • Request reading.  Ask the subject lead to recommend some reading that reflects their curriculum thinking so that you can better understand the culture of your new department/subject and start to contribute to discussions and decisions.

The more you unpick curriculum choices, the more it can start to feel overwhelming.  However it can be helpful to retain two key messages.  Firstly, our reasoning does not have to be complicated.  Simple, well-thought out sequencing that is well-understood by all teachers, even non-specialists, is likely to be the most powerful.  Secondly that not everything has to be perfected at once.  The curriculum remains a living, changing, responsive learning tool that is never “done”.  A solid basic plan with ambitious development goals can be a great starting point.  In this regard, the ability we now have to shape our curriculum design should be seen as empowering.  

Some key questions to consider when thinking about curriculum sequencing:

  1. Why is this topic/skill taught at this point?  When is it revisited and why then?
  2. What is the expected standard and knowledge base students will achieve at the end of each key transition point?  Why have these been chosen as the key skills/knowledge for our students?
  3. When are key misconceptions tackled and why at that point?
  4. How can the curriculum be enriched and diversified without diluting the key learning goals?  When do the opportunities arise for this?

Reflecting on … teaching with masks (again!)

Reflecting on … teaching with masks (again!)

On Sunday morning (having, of course, already leaked the news to the papers) the government updated guidance to include mask wearing in classrooms.  We have done this before and know that it is, whilst not impossible, not always easy either for us or for our students.  Following the announcement, I have done some reading around to pull together guidance which might be of use.  Here is some best practice advice from other schools and colleagues in education to help make teaching with masks as effective and painless as it can be:

Protecting yourself (and your voice) whilst speaking clearly.

As teachers we are all aware that our voice is one of our most important tools.  However wearing a mask dampens sound and tempt teachers to strain their voices.  Ann-Mari Pierotti of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association’s research suggests that mask-wearers have a natural tendency to compensate for the mask by raising the volume of their voices.  However her research suggests this doesn’t actually make speech significantly clearer and can lead to the risk of strain; short-term voice loss, or more significant damage such as the development of nodules on the vocal cords.  Either way, if we strain our voices, neither our own health nor our students’ learning is going to be improved.  So it is worth noting the following advice to help speak clearly and protect our voices:

  1. Rather than raise the volume slow down your pace of speech, especially if you tend to speak quite fast.  Slowing down the rate of speech and clearly breaking between words does much more to make speech through a mask than increasing volume
  2. Speak precisely – take care to enunciate words clearly.  A good way to help with this is to exaggerate the movements of your mouth when speaking.  Although students can’t see your lips move, of course, this will help you to pronounce words carefully and in a way that students can understand, even through a mask.
  3. Face the class when talking – if you’re facing the board or another area of the classroom sound has to travel around your body.  Whilst this might normally be okay for many students, with the added barrier of the mask, it is very unlikely to be effective at the moment.  (It should be noted that this is best inclusive practice even without masks on to support students with hearing difficulties, which may be low-level enough not to appear on an IEP.)
  4. Drink plenty throughout the day – this is good for your throat at any time, but when wearing a mask we can forget to do this or feel we should have to wait until we’re alone.  Quickly lifting your mask to have a sip of your drink is unlikely to lead to a COVID outbreak, but might just save your voice for use another day.
  5. Build in quiet time – look at your day plan and ensure time is built in when you can rest your voice.  If you have a full day (especially with duties) this might involve thinking carefully about lesson activities to ensure that you are not using your voice constantly from 8.30am – 3.10pm. 

Explaining new concepts and ideas

Even with these steps for effective verbal communication in place, explaining complicated ideas or concepts to students through a mask is still a challenge.  Here, though, the key elements of good teaching come to our aid.  Most of these things we do anyway, but their significance will now be greater than ever so this is a time to make absolutely sure you are:

  • Explicitly teaching new vocabulary, showing new key words and terms to students and giving them time to familiarise themselves with new language.
  • Offering visual support when explaining concepts or ideas: diagrams and illustrations when carefully chosen and well-presented can help students build effective schema and support understanding of new ideas.  These will be even more important at a time when verbal communication may not be reliable.
  • Model everything:  ensure your visualiser is close to hand and model anything you ask students to do.  Complicated sets of instructions are hard for students to follow and implement at the best of times so ensure that you are giving clear models of your expectations. Don’t forget that silent modelling can be very powerful (perhaps with the odd key word or phrase dropped in) and also save strain on the voice.

Checking students’ understanding

This presents whole new challenges when everyone is wearing masks.  Some students are able to project effectively through their masks and some will be comfortable lifting their masks (very briefly) to make themselves.  However others may struggle to be heard or communicate through their masks.  It can be tempting to increasingly rely on communications from those we understand most easily, even whilst being aware that this is not an inclusive approach.  Consider the following strategies to include all students in feedback and check the understanding of the whole class:

  • Increase the use of small closed-question checks of student understanding.  This will not only save your voice but help you pick up quickly if some students are not following and are struggling to understand you through the mask.
  • Use the mini-whiteboards on planners to help students participate in questioning without using their voices.  Whilst better with shorter answers, well-constructed multiple choice options or rough sketches can allow students to communicate more complicated ideas effectively through this medium.
  • Written answers.  Have students write their answers to more complicated or opinion-based questions then make use of that handy visualiser to share a range of different views, opinions and approaches with the class. 


Many of the practices outlined above have already been shared and discussed in other places as part of our inclusive teaching strategies.  However some students will find learning in a fully-masked environment more challenging than others.  These will not necessarily be those with hearing problems identified on IEPs.  Healthwatch Director Frances Dewhurst points out that most people rely on lip-reading to some extent in communication and low-level hearing loss may not always be diagnosed as a sensory impairment if a student copes in a normal, non-masked environment.  In order to ensure masked teaching is as accessible to all students as possible it might be worth considering the following strategies:

  1. Act promptly to address low-level disruption to ensure that background noise is cut to a minimum. 
  2. As you use whole-class AfL to check understanding consider seating options that may support those who are struggling e.g. being moved closer to the front.  Do look for whole-class patterns e.g. a side of the room that may be struggling to follow.  Ensure you face that side of the room as you review explanations and give further examples.
  3. Use gestures and images more:  as students have lost the vital cues of facial expression, lips and (some) tone exaggerated facial gestures and greater use of images will help them to replace these cues.

Questions to help you reflect on how effectively you’re communicating through a mask:

  1.  At the end of the day what level of strain are my voice and throat feeling compared to normal?  What can I do to reduce strain in future days and preserve my vocal health?
  2. What is my whole-class AfL telling me about students’ understanding of my teaching.  Are there any patterns in those who are struggling to follow e.g. particular parts of the room my voice is not reaching well?
  3. What is the best way to support this explanation or concept for someone who is going to struggle to hear me through my mask: a diagram? A video with subtitles?  A model answer?

Reflecting On… Inclusive Teaching Strategies to ‘Close the Gap’

Research shows that some of the most effective strategies for closing the gap in education are those which can be adopted as standard classroom practice:  “Wave 1” teaching strategies, or “Quality First Teaching”.  What we need to understand when it comes to successful inclusion is that:

  1. The work done in the classroom each and every day can have a huge impact in supporting disadvantaged learners and closing educational gaps.
  2. This is not generally through complicated interventions or individualised, differentiated learning outcomes or activities but high-quality, high-impact whole class teaching strategies.

The logic is simple.  We all know that there is a huge range of variables that affect educational outcomes including home life, quality of teaching, motivation and behaviour, cultural experiences and individual needs. 

Children with more educational success find it easier to cope with educational deficits.  Suppose I introduce new vocabulary without explaining it properly.  Children who are word-rich, have easy access to technology, have been taught how to use a dictionary (or search engine) effectively, have word-rich friends and families, or who are confident enough to ask for help have a whole range of strategies on which to draw to overcome the problem.  Perhaps I introduce a new concept but my AfL strategies don’t pick up that some students are struggling with it.  Again, those with families with high-educational attainment, suitable technology or even older siblings have a range of alternative ways to learn the concept.  Those with one or more disadvantages in these areas are going to struggle more.  And the gap grows, be it ever so slightly.  (More so if this contributes to bigger issues of motivation or self-esteem, but we will think more about this in a later blog.)

This is why we need to ingrain into our practice learning strategies that are effective in supporting the progress of all students in our classrooms.  These do not need to be laborious, complicated or time-consuming.  In fact, the reason that certain strategies have the greatest impact is almost certainly because they are none of these things. 

We are, in fact, focusing on 5 key strategies that used in all classrooms will help to lower the attainment gap between different groups of students and ensure that the education we offer is truly inclusive.  These are:

  1. Dyslexia-Friendly teaching and explicit teaching of new vocabulary.  It is incredibly easy to assume pupils know more words than they do.  We tend to teach Tier 3 (subject-specific) vocabulary carefully, with lots of practice, testing and examples.  However we frequently fail to pay the same attention to Tier 2 vocabulary (high-frequency words but those generally used in writing rather than spoken language). 

These words open a world of meaning but can also lead to students being shut out of academic discourse if students are unfamiliar with them.  David Didau estimates that just 400 words can open up thousands of others in the English language. 

By explicitly teaching new vocabulary, including stem words, suffixes and prefixes, etymology, morphology, examples and non-examples we support students not just with learning that word but with any other connected words.  We also teach them decoding strategies that will help them when they encounter new and unfamiliar language and make academic texts and discussions seem less daunting and something only accessible to a small elite.

  •  The use of visual cues and diagrams to support explanations and teach new concepts.  We know that what we say and explain to students is not always what goes into their heads.  Concepts and ideas that seem clear and well-connected to us may not be so to the novice.  And as Graham Nuthall points out in ‘The Hidden Lives of Learners’, learners do not always seek clarity in the most useful places.  They are likely to weigh long-standing ideas (even if these are misconceptions) strongly and distort new information.   Their first port-of-call for clarity is often a peer, who may be equally or even more confused. 

In using carefully selected visuals and diagrams to explain new concepts and reinforce information we give the learner the best opportunity to connect new ideas to each other in a meaningful way that more closely fits the schema held by the expert.  This vital strategy helps to close the gap by making the implicit connections explicit for all learners, not just those with the prior knowledge or understanding to assimilate new concepts effectively.

  • Hands-down and whole class questioning:  these approaches to questioning ensure that all students participate in AfL, not just those who are most confident with the material or at speaking out.  We know that AfL is a vital tool for identifying gaps in students’ understanding and yet, if done badly, it can give teachers false information about student progress. 

The concept of “survivorship bias” helps to explain why this is so important. In World War 2 the allies famously statistically plotted on returning aeroplanes the key areas of damage with a view to reinforcing those parts of the plane  Statistician Abraham Wald pointed out the fallacy here; they were focusing on the ‘planes which had survived, so by definition those damaged areas were the places the ‘planes could survive damage.  It was the unmarked areas of planes that needed reinforcing.

In many ways, AfL in the classroom works in the same way.  I am looking for students who have not ‘survived’ my teaching – who have become lost in my explanation, not understood the key terms or failed to process the instructions.  Hands-up questioning leads to me getting lots of positive feedback from ‘survivors’, who have learned something.  But the ones I need to speak to are those who got lost along the way if I am to unpick where it went wrong and close the learning gap.

  •  No ‘opt-out’ teaching:  It is undoubtedly the case that learning is challenging and we all respond differently to challenges.  On the right day, in the right mood a new intellectual or physical challenge can be stimulating, motivating and exciting.  Another time and place it can be daunting, exhausting or anxiety-inducing.

As adults we get quite a lot of say over when and how we face new challenges.  Students do not.  However our sympathy for their emotional state can lead us to make choices which do not support their long-term development.  Lesson passes, opting-out of questioning, toilet breaks, visits to the medical room, regular lateness, repeatedly offering “I don’t know” as an answer… all of these can be necessary and appropriate sometimes.  But they can also be tools to avoid learning and challenge.  Identifying and questioning learning ‘opt-outs’ can be very important for ensuring that some of our most vulnerable learners are actually in the classroom being supported with their learning rather than elsewhere, missing out.

  •  A curriculum which is a ‘mirror and a window’.  This is a lovely phrase which I stole from a blog by Steve Adcock and which he credits to a group of English teachers.  It captures exactly the work we need to do in our curriculum to ensure it is inclusive and contributes to closing rather than widening the gap. 

In reviewing the curriculum, the diversity of our reading programme, and the links between different subjects we are working to ensure that our students leave school equipped with the powerful knowledge they need to thrive in the world. As a ‘window’ the curriculum opens their eyes to new and diverse experiences of the kind that they may not encounter anywhere else.  As a ‘mirror’ the curriculum should reflect the experiences of all of our students, to ensure that none are alienated and sit ignored and invisible in our schools. If we get the curriculum right our students will see its relevance to themselves and be inspired by the new worlds we open to them.  For some, this will supplement a wide and rich cultural experience provided for them out-of-school.  For others it will be their only or main opportunity to experience these worlds and ideas and close the gap with their peers.

Some key questions to support an inclusive classroom:

  1.  What are the words or concepts that my most disadvantaged students will struggle with this lesson and how do I explain these so that every student understands them?
  2. How do I know that all groups of students have learned what I intended to teach?
  3. What disadvantages might alienate a student from the content of my lesson and how might I ensure that it is accessible to all?
  4. Are students avoiding participating in some or part of the learning?  What will help ensure they are fully (physically and cognitively) in the room and not ‘opting out’?