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.

11 thoughts on “A simple classroom in a complex world

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