A simple classroom in a complex world

80-20finalImage: @jasonramasami

In my twenties I discovered an appreciation for Islamic architecture. I am particularly fond of the Mughal mosques and mausoleums of the Indian subcontinent made famous by the Taj Mahal in Agra. The ornate simplicity is astonishing: the immaculate symmetry and balance; the marriage of the curved and the vertical; the purposeful repetition of design.

My favourite building of all is the sandstone Jama Masjid (Great Mosque) of Delhi. In the heart of this most teeming and complicated of cities, it provides a magnificent oasis of calm. On the two occasions I have viewed and visited the mosque, I have been granted a sense of clarity that offsets the chaos of the surrounding world.

Building simplicity is not easy; it takes great knowledge and skill. However, I like to imagine that one day my classroom and my teaching might replicate this effect in their own small way. I like to imagine that my students, deep in the messiness of adolescence, might experience a clarity of thought and purpose difficult to achieve in the outside world.

Perhaps an insight into how to achieve this might be found by applying the Pareto principle, or the 80-20 rule, to my teaching practice. Put simply, this economic rule-of-thumb works on the premise that 80% of effects come from 20% of causes. In business, this might mean that 80% of sales come from 20% of customers. And in education? Doug Lemov suggests in Practice Perfect that we should ‘practise the 20’. We should, in effect, work out what is most important for learning in our subject areas and then we should get students to practise this to automaticity (to the point they can do it without thinking about it).

I am thinking about this as a broader principle. How can I cut away the extraneous and unnecessary in my English lessons to reveal the fertile ground beneath? How can I simplify in a way which enhances learning?

Assess what matters. Whether we like it or not, assessment drives what we teach and how much importance we give it. That is why I love the idea of assessing threshold concepts (those areas of knowledge so crucial that, according to Meyer and Land, they ‘transform perception of a given subject’ once understood). In writing, for instance, I think mastery of sentence structure might be one whereas an over-focus on punctuation is a red-herring.

Find the heart of the topic. It is easy when reading a weighty text to expect students to learn everything. You must be able to make 10 points about these 10 characters, these 10 themes and these 10 events! What this tends to lead to is watered-down knowledge (probably due to the overloading of the working memory). I have found it more effective to pick five vital quotations from the text and build all understanding on these. It seems risky, but quotes seem to provide a foundation onto which broader and deeper knowledge can be systematically constructed.

Ask fewer but better questions. Sometimes I find myself asking too many questions, yet every now and then I stumble across one that elicits amazing responses. ‘Is Lady Macbeth frightened or frightening?‘ was this week’s winner with the year 8s. Questions that cut straight to the heart of the matter are like gold dust. I need to discover more of them.

Balance exposition with practice. Getting the balance between the two right is so key. Teacher explanation and modelling are vital, yet the effect can fizzle out if they are not detailed enough or too detailed. Similarly, time must be built in for lots of practice, yet if there is no new input or feedback this practice can become counterproductive and lead to the embedding of sloppy skills.

Distil student feedback. This one is a massive problem for me. Class discussion can so easily become unfocused and repetitive, especially as I find it hard to say “no, let’s move on” when kids want to talk. Recently, I have been asking them to distill their ideas down to the best one. If, for instance, they are annotating a poem, they must only feed back what they have identified as their best idea. We can then, as a class, distil these ideas further. Early signs are encouraging.

Consider what students are thinking about at all times. This one comes from Daniel Willingham. Children will learn what they learn. If, in English, they sitting around in small groups talking about school uniform policies then what are they learning? How to conduct small group discussions successfully or what they don’t like about their school uniform? It’s up to us to make the objectives of this kind of task very clear and transparent.

Use simple and repeated resources. Every time we give a child a complicated looking resource the like of which they have never seen before, they have to learn how to use it. So often, my well-intentioned scaffolding has fallen flat on its face because students just haven’t ‘got’ how to work with it. I was once told at an AQA conference that we should teach students to plan writing in a variety of ways because some are spatial-learners and others linear-learners. There is more than a sniff of VAK about this! Below, is my new planning sheet for writing. They will use it every time they write. At first, it will need lots of modelling and explanation, but after a while it will, I hope, subtly shape thinking without limiting it.

I think I have stayed true to the Mughal principles!


The key to this vision is that the classroom should not replicate ordinary life, it should enhance it. Simplicity is not dull, boring or easy. It is, for me, a classroom aesthetic.



The sister post of this one: Again and again and again: the unheralded beauty of repetition.

Differentiation: making possible the impossible


Image: @jasonramasami

When I think about the students I teach, I probably should make a beeline to their personality traits – their helpfulness, cheerfulness, kindness or pain-in-the-backside-ness. Or, perhaps, I should visualise an image of their pimply or foundation-masked faces. But no. Instead, etched in this particular English teacher’s mind’s eye, is their handwriting. Eddie’s hideous scrawl that hides his mature and concise control of syntax. Imogen’s perfectly curlicued lettering that can’t quite disguise a simplistic matter-of-factness of style. Tom’s horror-show spelling that can sometimes be forgiven because of an unexpected rhetorical flourish.

They are all different, very different. Now let’s multiply these three by ten and we have your average class. Grades and levels might help me group these thirty into smaller groups, yet even within these smaller groups the range, in terms of what they can do and can’t do, and in terms of what they know and don’t know, is startling. In fact, it is impossible for me to hold all this complex data in my mind at one time. This difficulty is further compounded by the truth that never will I be able to see inside minds and memories to discover the extent of comprehension that exists beyond what appears on the page or what is uttered from the mouth.

Graham Nuthall’s incredible research, detailed in his book The Hidden Lives of Learners, shows how each student enters the classroom with very different prior knowledge even if their ability is broadly similar. New knowledge, as we know, can only be assimilated in the memory by attaching itself to existing knowledge schemas. This means, in effect, that each and every child will experience our lessons differently and so learn very different information and concepts from the same lesson. Nuthall’s amazing finding was that about a third of what a student learns is unique to that student and is not learned by other students in the class.

So, differentiation – or challenging all at the level of need – is pretty hard. In an attempt to paper-over this uncomfortable truth, I have attempted many teaching strategies. Unfortunately, however, each of these strategies has seemed to both fix the problem and simultaneously create a new problem:

• If they work in ability groups, then the more-able can stretch each other…yet the less-able might hold each other back.

• If they work in mixed-ability groups, then the more-able can support the less-able…yet it is harder to challenge the more-able with new material in this scenario.

• If students are given different tasks, then they will have work suited to their ability…yet confusion about how to complete the task is more likely as each task will need separate instructions.

• If I only ask simple questions to the less-able, then they will be more confident when talking in class…yet they will not be stretched by challenging, higher-order questioning.

• If I only ask challenging questions to the more-able, then their thinking will always be stretched…yet it might be that they too need testing on their basic understanding.

And the list goes on…It seems, therefore, that attempts to differentiate can militate against the very learning I am trying to elicit. The above are all useful teaching strategies, of course, but are they useful differentiation strategies? It seems to me that too much that goes by the name of ‘differentiation’ is driven by deficit. It focuses on what they can’t do now, rather than what they might be able to do in the future. This is further compounded by the fact that the more ‘different’ learning experiences I try to plan into one lesson, the more time consuming it becomes to plan and the more watered-down my effect becomes. I cannot deliver six different lessons as effectively as I can one. 

So what’s the solution? Clearly our students are all so different that they cannot be taught through the same methods, can they?

Well, perhaps they can. When I reverse my thinking I find the complexity a little easier to cope with. It may be impossible to tailor work to the level of each individual in every single lesson. However, over a longer period of time – a year, a key stage – it is less daunting. That’s why I think that differentiation can never be measured in an individual lesson; it might look like they are all learning or being challenged, but you can bet your bottom dollar they are not. My way of looking at it is that if our students  make progress over time, irrespective of ability, then we are surely differentiating well.

So here are my four – very simple and obvious – suggestions for creating a classroom culture that might ensure that all abilities thrive.

1. An ethos of hard work and sky-high behavioural expectations must be established. As Dweck’s mindset research has ascertained, students must attribute success to hard-work; failure must be normalised, or even celebrated, as part of this ethos.

2. High challenge is essential. However, we must accept that it is not realistic to expect that every lesson is challenging for all. At times we need to, as Doug Lemov suggests, ‘encode success’ through practising the basic knowledge and skills that underpin our subject areas. Challenge, therefore, is about imagining where the student might get to in the future and then leading them there, however circuitous the journey.

3. Responsiveness is key. We must anticipate as best we can the needs of our individual students, yet we must always be prepared to act and respond to the unanticipated needs too. See my post on the matter.

4. Differentiation is no bolt-on. It should be infused in everything we do. How might we explain complex and abstract ideas with clarity and concision? How might we break up complex questions into a simpler, yet no less challenging, series of questions? How might we deliver instructions in the most meaningful way? How might we, as David Didau might say, make the implicit thought processes of experts, explicit to our students? Etc, etc.

Please don’t see this argument as an excuse for binning differentiation as a frame of reference; in fact, I see it as quite the opposite. Let me finish on a slightly pretentious note. The concept or ‘force’ known as Brahman comes from the Hindu religion – it is said to be the ultimate reality or ‘soul’ underlying all phenomena. Perhaps the following analogy for Brahman could also apply to how differentiation might melt into everything we do:

When you throw a lump of salt into water, it dissolves; you cannot take it out again, and hold it in your hands. Yet if you sip any part of the water, the salt is present. In the same way the soul can be perceived everywhere and anywhere; the soul has no limit or boundary.

— Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 1:4.1–4, 8

Related posts:

Why is challenge such a challenge?

Differentiating the responsive way

What I learnt about great teaching from learning to brew beer


Image: @jasonramasami

Four years ago I became, almost despite myself, an all-grain brewer. What does this mean, you ask? It means that I can design a beer recipe. I can choose from a dizzying range of ingredients. I can combine hops, malt, yeast in an ancient scientific alchemy. I can manage the fermentation process. I can bottle-up and wait impatiently for maturation. And I can drink the stuff. Litres of it.

If I think back five years, however, I had not the slightest interest in becoming a homebrewer. If you had told me that within a year I would be able to make my own amber nectar, I would have thought you absurd. I have few practical skills, I don’t have a head for science and the closest I’d ever come to real ale was a pint of the mass-marketed stout known throughout the land as Guinness.

So what happened? My transformation was driven entirely by my friend, brewing expert and fellow English teacher Gavin McCusker. Gav decided he would like a brewing partner and that I was his man. Right from the get-go his vision of my brewing potential surpassed my imagination of who I was and what I was capable of.

This post reflects on my experience as a novice ale-maker and what I have learnt about the experience of being a learner…

Let’s get started. The learning process Gav took me through was devoid of any teaching ideology; instead it was purely pragmatic. How would he use the limited time we had to turn me into the discerning and skillful brewing buddy he so desired? He decided to take the hard option: he would need to design me in his own image. I was to be his apprentice.

The brew-day itself is the key to brewing; it is far more complex than managing fermentation (the few weeks that it takes for yeast to convert sugars to alcohol) and bottling. To master brewing, you need to master the brew-day.

1. It started off with watching Gav, the expert, in action. He modelled the processes, talking me through a huge range of procedures from mashing, to sparging, to boiling, to cooling the wort… Needless to say, it was very challenging and not a little confusing (made even more so by the fact that it is de rigueur to knock back one or two ‘sample’ ales along the way).

2. As Gav explained, he flaunted his mastery of the brewer’s glossary, refusing to ‘dumb-down’ for the sake of easy comprehension. The boiler was the ‘kettle’, the sticky pre-hopped fluid was the ‘wort’, the grain was ‘malt’. He took time to explain how ‘alpha acids’ determine bitterness, the way alcohol levels are measured in ‘gravity’.

3. The next time we brewed together it was more of a collaborative venture. Gav allowed me to practise the basic processes one-by-one while he managed the overall sequence. Instant feedback was readily available – I remember he was distinctly unimpressed by my stirring technique!

4. Gav was insistent that I did not buy specialist brewing equipment. Abiding by frugal ideals, the genuine homebrewer fashions ones own utensils. We made a brewing ‘kettle’ from the combination of an old chutney vat and an element taken from a Tesco Value kettle; we insulated the ‘mash tun’ with a couple of tent mattresses from Argos. It was slow, frustratingly time-consuming, but helped me to understand the minute mechanics of what I was learning.

5. When it was finally time for me to brew alone, Gav provided a written scaffold: an exhaustive list of procedural instructions, calculations and a recipe. He was available on the phone to answer my questions, but ultimately I was left alone, independent. And guess what? I made my first beer!

6. On cracking open and sipping my first brew I was up for more. I read around the subject, deepening my understanding as I did. Eventually, I designed my own beer from start to finish: Pepper Porter. Made from a mixture of pale malt, chocolate malt and roasted barley, it was named after Pepper, my dog. With chocolatey bitter depths, boy it was good on a winter’s evening!


7. Over time, my beer preferences have diverged from Gav’s. He prefers the heavily-hopped American-style beers all the rage in the Brighton area at the moment; I prefer something sweet, malty and more traditionally British.

8. Since learning to brew, I have experimented with many styles of beer. There have been disasters along the way (like the day the beer leaked out of the fermenting vessel, through the floor and dripped onto the head of my son’s visiting great-grandmother!). There have also been many successes too: such as the beer I brewed, to much acclaim, for my best friend’s wedding. Unfortunately, due to the demands of life, I have not brewed for several months. I know, however, I will pick it up again easily when I have the chance. It’s like riding a bike.

The process Gav took me on was not a self-conscious one; instead it was entirely organic. However, it mirrors remarkably the ‘Big 5’ that Shaun Allison has identified at my school. Beginning with the initial challenge, we moved through explanation, modelling and collaboration, all supported by feedback, questioning and scaffolding.


The process took time. It is now firmly embedded in my long-term memory. The sequence would have pleased the cognitive scientist. It involved repetition, spaced-out learning and the interleaving of procedural steps.

All the above factors, however, were not the most crucial. The most crucial factor was my teacher, Gav. He was indefatigable, never giving up on the vision of the brewer I could become, even if I was ready to throw in the towel on more than one occasion. His quest was relentless. At 7.30 on a Monday morning, he would come into my classroom to ask about my latest ‘gravity reading’. When I was having trouble with the ‘false-bottom’ of my mash tun, he took it to the DT room after school to perfect. His infectious enthusiasm for brewing exuded from every pore of his body. He encouraged, commiserated, cajoled, comforted and bullied me into becoming a brewer, never once allowing me to believe that this was not possible.

If brewing was an academic subject, my target grade, based on prior practical ability, would have been a D. In brewing terms, a D would be the equivalent of being able to brew a hop-less wort (which, unless you like sickeningly sweet Horlicks, would be entirely pointless not to mention unpalatable).

So what did my experience as a novice brewer teach me about teaching? Firstly, that for all the expert teaching methodology and research in the world, the relentless belief of the teacher in the student’s potential is the glue that binds everything together. Secondly, that expectation is everything: the teacher must make the unimaginable imaginable. And thirdly, that learning, with all its short-term setbacks, must be a long term venture.

Of course, Gav did not have a class of 25 in front of him; he was teaching me one-to-one. We also had a very tangible goal – lots of cheap beer! – to work towards. Even so, Gav taught me many lessons. This week, my Y8s have been set a Shakespeare sonnet to recite from memory. Some have managed it first time, others have not. It would be so easy to say to those who have struggled, “It’s okay, you gave it your best shot.” But no, instead I have said: “Go and practise again over the weekend. I know you can do it.” I became a brewer, they can learn a sonnet.

Cheers Gav!


Related posts:

Why is challenge such a challenge?

Differentiating the responsive way

Again and again and again: the unheralded beauty of repetition


Image: @jasonramasami

If you had told me a few years ago that today I would be writing a piece on why repetition is so important in the classroom, I would have been puzzled. Improving impact as a teacher has always for me been about trying to increase complexity, both in the technicality of classroom practice and the learning ‘product’ offered to students. Coupled with this is a personality trait of mine: I avoid repetition with a passion. I rarely re-read a book or re-watch a film and I have a personal target of visiting a new country each year. I am working at a deficit; at 34, I have tragically only visited 29. Similarly, I am always innovating in the classroom, trying to do things a little differently each time.

But is it worth it?

Perhaps I am just a mindless lemming, a victim of a Western consumer society in thrall to the lure of mass consumption. Some might argue that the progressive ideology of my ITT year, one that lauded constant creativity over the comfort of habit, has sunk its fangs into me to lasting effect. That’s probably unfair. What’s true, however, is that the most repetitive aspect of my practice has been that I avoid repetition like the plague. Habit, routine and repetition were, I thought, the darlings of behaviour management, with little essential use for learning itself. One example was my belief that every poem I teach should be taught differently: cut up this one, fill in missing words on that one etc, etc. Each time destroying the wholeness of a piece of literature in the name of variety.

My attitude has changed recently. I have read books by Ron Berger, Daniel Willingham, Graham Nuthall and Doug Lemov which all, through research or anecdote, place repetition (and I would include redrafting here) at the heart of learning. Lemov’s Practice Perfect has been the real clincher. Take this description of an experienced driver:

“Not only do unconscious habits you’ve burned into your memory determine many of your actions, but while all of this happening you may engage in some of your deepest and most reflective abstract thinking. While you are executing a series of complex skills and tasks that were at one time all but incomprehensible to you, your mind is free to roam and analyse and wonder. If you use practice to build mastery of a series of skills, and if you build up skills intentionally, you can master surprisingly complex tasks and in so doing free your active cognition to engage with other important tasks.”

Through repeating processes to automaticity, we may well create the space for new and innovative thinking. As teachers this is doubly important. We are practitioners ourselves, yet we also provide an environment for our students to practice in.

Here’s an example of a resource I have been using recently. Cobbled together in a modest five minutes, this was initially my attempt to get students to move from the phrase ‘this shows’ to employing a more tentative tone:


I have made my students – all of them, in every year –stick this in a visible place on their folders. By a combination of accident and design, it has become a focal point of my teaching of analytical writing. I remind them to check the sheet regularly, we employ the words explicitly in the models we write, I emphasise the words in my talk, they are encouraged to use them in theirs and, most crucially, they are beginning to use the language in their writing. Some students are clunky and artificial in their attempts, others more fluent, and others still have taken it and turned it into something much more exciting: Shakespeare’s description of ‘x’ is illustrative of his belief in ‘y’. The repeated use of the resource over weeks and months has not only helped students, but reminded me to repeat my core message about analytical writing. The sheet is imperfect – a Mark ll will be out next academic year – yet on its own it has had more noticeable impact than a whole gamut of ad-hoc strategies I have used in the past.

Another example comes from my new approach to teaching poetry. I get students to undertake this first, ticking off as they go:

Screenshot 2014-05-03 17.02.36

Each time they receive a new poem, they fill in the tick-sheet as they go – no instruction needed. The poetry lesson that follows also takes on a very set routine. In the past, in my desire to provide an interesting new experience each lesson, I have sometimes forgotten that new content is also a new experience. Might it be that my slavish adherence to variety has created more complexity than necessary? Students have been forced to learn both the task rules and the content. Another advantage of this approach is that, rather than starting from zero each time, I can subtly hone the strategy lesson-by-lesson. Repetition is often thought of as a traditional teaching method rather than progressive method. I think it might add value to both.

One last thought. I arrived at school this Friday in a post-parents’ evening fug. Year 8, period 1, came about with little planning beyond ‘consider Act 1, Scene 3 of Macbeth as a stage performance’. I started the lesson the way I start any lesson I have not planned in detail. (Let’s face it, this happens on many other Friday’s too!) The students wrote down at least three things they learnt about the witches last lesson. As they wrote, I circled prompting them: think about actions, think about motives, think about the words they used… Then they fed back; I questioned and probed, and they build-upon and challenged each other’s opinions. Within a few minutes on Friday, we were discussing whether the witches were proto-feminists or simply acting out of malice.

Only today has it occurred to me why this simple teaching strategy works so well. I have done it so many times before it has become automatic. Maybe that’s why my lessons always feel more productive on a Friday!

In all, a careful balance might be best. Too much repetition can have a negative effect on motivation; too much variety might make learning unnecessarily challenging for student and teacher alike.