In trying to do so much we do too little

in doing too much

Image: @jasonramasami

Recently, I asked a class of top-set year 11s to identify the verbs in a piece of writing. It was a seemingly simple activity that I had given them a few minutes to complete, yet it quickly became clear from the blank faces I was met with that my request had posed something of a problem: after five years of secondary school, a sizeable proportion of the group did not know what a verb was.

How many times in 11 years of schooling must they have encountered the term before? How many times must they have heard the word uttered from a teacher’s lips or seen it written up on a board? Yet despite numerous exposures, this relatively simple concept, one probably within the capacity of a bright 5 year-old, had slipped away and had hardly been grasped at all.  Of course, the humble verb is but the tip of the iceberg; the number of completely learnable terms and concepts which I have exposed my students to and they have have not learnt is too numerous to list.

This realisation, that so much of what I have taught has not been learnt, has been steadily dawning on me over the past year or so. It has set in motion a strange and vertiginous feeling, akin perhaps to trudging for many miles across a plateau in the hope of finding a place to spend the night, only to find oneself standing at the edge of a plunging, bottomless abyss.

Much has gone before, in my classroom and in others. Curricular have been jammed with sparkling ideas and concepts; lessons have overflowed with activities and ingenious new strategies; every inch of white board has been crammed with text and pictures and diagrams. Exercise books have been filled with words; hours of discussion have ricocheted between the classroom walls; synapses have sparked and connected in their billions. But still it is the same. So many children leave school knowing far less than we would hope them to.

The reasons for this are complex. Anybody who tries to tell you that there is one cause is wrong. Anybody who finds solace in an ideological or scientific explanation is probably only telling you half the story. Society, motivation and development all play a part, but I still think one of the causes has its roots in both curriculum and pedagogy. There is a paradox here: in trying to do so much we do too little.

My theory is that we try to throw too much at children, and that this is why so little of it sticks. A basic understanding of cognitive load theory can help us to conceptualise why over-stuffing lessons and curricular does not work. The human working memory – the part of the brain that processes new information – can only cope with a limited number amount of new information at one time. When it becomes ‘overloaded’, there is no room left to think, which can then prevent new information from reaching the destination it needs to get to: the long-term memory, where it can be stored indefinitely. (Alex Quigley usefully sums up how this works in this post on thinking hard.)

There are other reasons, too. One, which I have dubbed the as-the-crow-flies-error, lies in asking students to perform complex skills, like analysing a writer’s style, before being secure in the knowledge needed to be able to do this, such as understanding the text’s plot or comprehension of the writer’s language.

The recent drive to increase the level of ‘challenge’ in lessons is an important one, but only if this challenge is focused and achievable. I would argue that we should always aim for more depth and less breadth. Drawing on international comparisons, Tim Oates argues – here – that teachers should look to expand upon the current idea before progressing to the next ones. Take one idea and examine it in depth, rather than let five or six ideas be touched upon superficially. A concern with this approach, some might argue, is that it does not benefit our more-able students who will be forced to remain with topics that they are ready to move on from. However, with good planning and more imaginative and stretching questions, our more-able students might well benefit more from this approach than any other.

The beauty of this way of thinking is that we might achieve more success by doing less work than we already do. By stepping back, by deciding on what is most important (and then going home a little earlier) could we go some way towards helping students to learn things more securely?

What follows are the things I am currently working on in my role as English teacher; the principle behind them all, however, could extend into all aspects of school life:

  • Plan to teach only 1 or 2 new vocabulary words or concepts per lesson.
  • Give less feedback – i.e. set one target, not two, but give time and space over a number of lessons to work on it.
  • Limit the number of success criteria, or procedural processes, that students work on in one go. (I have a habit of asking students to do 5 or 6 new things in their work; it works better to use fewer so that they can really think about them.)
  • If a slide show is to be used, cut down the number of words per slide, and cut down the number of total slides . If they have to read something from the slide, allow time for that.
  • Plan for two or three tasks per lesson, no more. Revisit the same material but in slightly different ways.
  • Decide on the key, essential knowledge that must not be forgotten. Teach it, revisit it, test it … and repeat. Joe Kirby’s knowledge organisers provide a useful model of how this could be organised.
  • Teach a bit, let the students write a bit. Teach a bit, write a bit. Teach a bit, write a bit. Lesson over.

Ultimately, all this is about prioritisation, about separating the wheat from the chaff – and then ensuring that the wheat is learnt well.

And if you are prepared to take this jump, perhaps you will have the spare time to start visiting friends, reading books, doing the things you enjoy and, dare I say it, forgetting about work.

(If you enjoyed this post, you might also enjoy this video on the art of subtraction from Jason Ramasami, who illustrates this blog.)

How to ensure that feedback leads to real learning


Image: @jasonramasami

In our recent book, Making every lesson count, Shaun Allison and I have used the following diagram to introduce the idea that feedback is a two-way process:


The notion on the left, that feedback should inform planning, is often overlooked; instead, teacher-to-student feedback is very much the flavour of the month – to the extent that ‘quality of marking’ has now become an accepted measure of a teacher’s effectiveness. However, there is a logical error inherent in this way of thinking. Quality of feedback can only be contingent on the quality of the initial input. Harry, for example, might have received high-quality teaching and no written feedback from his teacher; Hannah, in another class, might have been the recipient of poor teaching and lots of remedial feedback. It is absurd to suggest that Harry’s teacher’s marking is of a lesser quality than Hannah’s teacher’s marking, without taking into account the quality of the initial teaching. If students are clearly making good progress, does it matter how much or how little red pen is in the books?

The craze for written feedback might also lead to a reliance on flimsy teaching methods. The mistakes I notice in my students’ written work are often the results of conceptual knowledge gaps or ingrained bad habits. Sometimes they are a combination of the two, and these cannot be solved by a couple of lines of red biro. Let’s say I write, ‘You need to use the possessive apostrophe accurately’ in a child’s exercise book. This is only useful if: a) he already knows and understands the concept of the possessive apostrophe, and b) the feedback reminds him to use the possessive apostrophe in his future writing. If these requirements are not met, then my written feedback will not solve the problem alone. Only focussed teaching and/or sustained practice over time will lead to a genuine improvement.

DIRT (dedicated improvement and reflection time), when the class can begin to practise their mistakes, is a useful starting point. Too often, however, it only papers over the cracks. The most useful thing about looking at student work is that it provides us with a recipe for future action. We learn what we need to teach again or teach better; we learn about our students’ working habits and how they can be improved.

It is important that schools and departments provide teachers with the flexibility and space they need to respond to their classes. Schemes-of-work and plans should have built-in room for this; they should not be too rigid. Destinations should remain the same, even if the journey is very different for each teacher and each class. This term, we are starting fortnightly revision lessons with our year 10s. Not only will these allow us to review previous content, but they will allow us to revisit areas of general weakness too. The link between reflection and planning is crystal clear; it feels like a powerful process.

It is frustrating that reflective and responsive planning, unlike marking, is largely invisible. We cannot pin it down or measure it; it happens in a teacher’s thoughts. Perhaps it is the root of what we call ‘expertise’, where our knowledge of how to teach our subject meets our ever-growing understanding of our students’ learning. When we watch a successful teacher in action, we witness a complex array of behaviours. It is difficult to distinguish which of these strategies is the cause of her success; it is even more difficult to conceptualise the thoughtful planning that has carried her to this point in time.

How best to bring this tacit thinking to light? How best to learn from the best teaching? Shaun Allison and I have started interviewing some of our most successful teachers in an attempt to tap into what they do and why they do it. These interviews have been fascinating, but we are struggling to find the best ways of sharing this information. How do we use it to develop the practice of others? I also like the idea of ‘learning observations’, when a teacher coaches another right through the planning, teaching and reflection process, so that both the thinking and the action are modelled.

The best that teachers and leaders can do is to encourage not only a culture of learning and reflection, but also one of humility. At its best, the idea that there are ‘great’ or ‘outstanding’ teachers in a school will create a few over-inflated egos; at its worst, it will lead to division and resentment. I have learnt most from those teachers who are never afraid to say that they have got it wrong and that they are going to try it again another way.

When school leaders and subject leaders do this, and when the staff room is full of teachers talking about the problems they are trying to solve, this is when our students will really start to learn from feedback.

Related posts:

Feedback: let’s build it in, not add it on