English teaching and the problem with knowledge


Tharby-knowledge-v-skillsWEBImage: @jasonramasami

At #tlt14 last weekend I had the pleasure of chatting with blogger and all-round nice chap Phil Stock about the role of knowledge in English teaching. Phil argues that student-generated interpretations of literary texts almost always lack depth and sophistication. Instead, textual interpretations are often better taught as discreet knowledge, rather than relying solely on the  flimsy attempts of our students. In other words, we owe it to them to teach interpretations of texts as explicit knowledge rather than hoping that we can teach them the skill of interpretation. Because an interpretation is formed in the context of what is already known, only children whose upbringings have been steeped in a wealth of cultural references have any chance of generating a genuinely sophisticated one.

Teaching for knowledge is not a simple concept in English. This is because we have to work out which and whose knowledge to teach. For traditionalists, this is where the Matthew Arnold argument comes into play: the ‘best that has been thought or said’ school of thought. But even if we took the Arnold line as gospel, the substance of taught knowledge would remain very different depending on which school, or even classroom, the child attends. In fact, two students steeped in traditional knowledge-based teaching might finish a GCSE course with completely different textual knowledge – Hamlet and Great Expectations rather than Othello and Jane Eyre, for instance. If we eschew the canon and teach a more eclectic range of texts, the problem becomes more extreme. I wonder if this confusion is partly the reason why the skills-based model of English teaching has become such a seductive alternative.

Indeed, for many years I have taken it as axiomatic that English is a skills-only subject. As such, texts and topics are useful only as reference points for developing nebulous skills – be it ‘making inferences’ or ‘charting the development of a character’ – with limited value in and of themselves. I am now realising that the problem is not that the skills should be considered unimportant, but that the resultant teaching approaches can inhibit learning.

Skills-based teaching lacks specificity. It encourages us to share abstractions, often in the form of learning objectives, success criteria or written and verbal feedback targets. A statement that I have used on many an occasion is ‘you need to use a broad range of vocabulary‘. It might seem straightforward to put into action, but it is not. Students can be left confused by which words to use and where to use them.

If we adopt a knowledge-based approach to teaching vocabulary, things become simpler and a hell of a lot clearer. We can decide on a set of words we would like them to use, ensure that they practise them accurately in a range of contexts, and then reasonably expect the new vocabulary to be put to use in extended writing and remembered in the long-term. Just ten interesting words explicitly taught over a half term – or three-hundred words over the five years of secondary school – is eminently more manageable and  more sensible than dropping students into the bottomless deep blue of The Oxford English Dictionary so that they can flounder time and time again. (This idea is brilliantly illustrated in Jason Ramasami‘s image at the top of this page.) Many other words will naturally be picked up in that time too, let’s not forget. However, the irony is that by focussing on the mastery of small, discreet items knowledge in the short term, we could accumulatively achieve so much more in the long term.

This approach, however, might rub against some deeply-held beliefs about what English teaching should constitute. We want our students to be free and individual, to produce work of flair and originality, so why deny this by encouraging uniformity? When we direct students towards specific vocabulary it is inevitable that there will be less diversity in the final written product produced within the class. This can leave us feeling cheap, like we have cheated our students out of the chance to be creative. But does it matter?

It is highly unlikely that a maths teacher would feel similarly. If every student achieves one-hundred percent in a maths test, and every student uses exactly the same working-out method, I imagine a teacher will feel that they have done a pretty good job. Now in English, work will never be identical, nor should it be. But does it really matter if the final product is similar because students are all practising the same concrete knowledge? In our quest for student divergence have we neglected to consider that all our students – even our brightest – need a secure base to start from?

Vocabulary is just one example where a focus on concrete knowledge, taught with the expectation that students will remember it and use it correctly in context, might reap benefits. Another example comes in the teaching of literature. To achieve between a B and an A* for the AQA English literature controlled assessment – which makes up 25% of the final grade – a student must develop ‘interpretations’. But as Phil explained, how well can novice readers, who in many cases have had little prior exposure to literary texts, make valid interpretations?

Inferences about a text are based on knowledge. We read that a character sits on a wall with their head in their hands and we infer that she is unhappy and dejected. The inference comes mainly from our knowledge of the world – that when someone puts their head in their hands it usually indicates a negative emotion. I would argue that most inferences made by students at KS3 and KS4 are drawn from their general knowledge of the world, not their knowledge of literary devices, conventions or other literary texts. Take the opening of Of Mice and Men. Almost all students will miss the biblical allusion in the description of the clearing ‘down by the river’ (used by Steinbeck to amplify the simple purity of George and Lennie’s companionship) because they do not securely know the Garden of Eden story and they do not realise that such allusions are a literary convention.

To teach ‘interpretation’ I have often expected students to do the work for themselves. Pedagogically, this has taken the form of in-depth questioning with the hope that I can elicit something that is hiding away in the deepest recesses of their minds. This has often, but not always, proven unsuccessful and I have had to backtrack and override the unfocussed ideas I have elicited. There is a critical question that cuts to the core of English teaching. At what point do we stop telling a student the answer and start asking questions? I think that, for many years, I have been asking the questions before securing the knowledge needed to answer them.

The solution might be to teach interpretations of a text as discreet knowledge. In this case, to talk through the Garden of Eden story – some will know it well, others will not – and how and why Steinbeck has alluded to it. So that they are involved in cognitive work, students can search for the textual details that support the theory. Teaching interpretations as concrete knowledge will be anathema to some teachers, but it is through this approach that we model how to make an interpretation. When students have grasped new ideas and can write about them with some fluency, they have achieved something valid. To accuse them of ‘idea plagiarism’ because they have taken ownership of an idea we have given them, or to misappropriate teaching as ‘spoon-feeding’, is very unfair. It is worth considering, too, that most teachers will actively research a range of interpretations to share with their students before teaching a new text. If teachers are intuitively aware that forming an interpretation is no easy feat, why do we expect it from our novice charges? I think interpretation is better thought of as an end rather than a means.

So, my key point is that in our desire to engender creativity in our students, might we be denying them the chance to learn English in a concrete knowledge-based way, in a way that will eventually guide them towards the independence we so desire from them? Since I have taken a more convergent approach and tightened my parameters, two things have occurred. One, student work has become more similar. Two, student work has become better.

Please do not take this as an argument against imagination. I think it is fair to say that some students are better at using what they already know to make interesting inferences and interpretations and to devise compelling written pieces than others, and that this should be actively encouraged. Knowledge teaching can sit side-by-side a celebration of the imagination; the two do not have to work solely in opposition. However, it is our responsibility to teach children new things, not to simply rely on what they already know. By teaching new knowledge in a simple and explicit way, we reduce cognitive load and probably increase the potential for creativity in the long-term.

Often this will mean changing the ratio between what we tell them to do and think and what we expect them to do and think individually.

Related posts:

The unheralded beauty of repetition

A simple classroom in a complex world

Analogy: the trusty servant of teacher talk

Round and round we go: teaching English in spirals

spacing(1)Images: @jasonramasami

I have always struggled with setting learning objectives for my English lessons. At times they seem useful, at other times not. When they allow me to zoom in on disconnected, isolated knowledge and skill, such as grammatical structures or punctuation rules, they give clarity and emphasis to planning. Yet when I am teaching a chapter of a novel, a complete poem or a scene from a play – or teaching students to write an extended text – they fail to capture the breadth of what I would like my students to learn. More often than not I will stick to a title: ‘Chapter 2 of Of Mice and Men’, for instance.

The reason is that literary texts require immersion. For any lesson on a text or part of a text, I usually like my students to know and think about some or all of the following:

• The meaning of any new vocabulary.
• The events unfolding.
• The characterisation.
• How the writer makes use of literary devices.
• The themes, ideas, feelings and beliefs that can be inferred from textual details.
• The authorial viewpoint in light of the text’s context.
• etc.

The last four examples always lend themselves to debate and interpretation – which is why I believe that discussion, particularly at a whole-class level, is so central to English pedagogy. It is also hard to separate the above list into discrete skill sets without losing sense of the richness of the living, breathing text at hand.

Another flaw with learning objectives lies in the way that we assume that if the child has mastered the content on the day, they have learnt it. The problem here, of course, is forgetting. Without some form of repetition it is very possible that this performance during the lesson will not lead to meaningful changes in what a child knows and can do. An objective will normally need to span far beyond one lesson to be of any genuine use.

At Key Stage 3 we have adopted a theme-based curriculum that dips into high-quality prose, poetry and drama in a spiralling pattern over the year. This term it is ‘Inequality’ for Y9 who will be reading Of Mice and Men, a range of political poetry, studying rhetoric in a range of speeches, and writing a comparative essay and a speech. This circular design, however, will be accompanied by a linear structure. This takes the form of two-weekly decontextualized grammar lessons which will allow us to home-in on and practice the essential ‘skinny parts’ (as Doug Lemov calls them) of writing technique, away from the clamour of narrative and ideas.

At the heart of English teaching lies a problem. How do we tie everything together? How do we get our students to see that literature is a beautiful, throbbing nexus not a set of unrelated texts? How do we help students to realise that their reading should inform their writing and vice-versa? How do we ensure that grammar knowledge is reinforced and practised in the context of ‘real’ writing? How do we keep multiple plates spinning at once so that all that is to be learnt is informed by all that has been learnt?

Ideas coming from cognitive psychology are really useful here. For me, the most important are:

• Spacing – the importance of returning back to knowledge and skill in spaced intervals.
• Interleaving – teaching topics side-by-side to improve retention and possibly the transfer of knowledge to new contexts.
• Retrieval practice (the ‘testing effect’) – that we improve our memory by using our memory… most especially at the point of forgetting.


But how should these laboratory findings look in practice? I have deep misgivings – based on hunch I must admit – about a crude scientific application of these insights to scheme-of-work and curriculum planning. I prefer to think of them as ways to subtly enhance our existing pedagogy and curriculum planning.

I would like to return to the spiral metaphor again here. On each cycle, new knowledge – be it a new poem, new word, new grammatical rule – can be fed into the class’ existing body of knowledge, enriching and deepening it before the next circulation. Each time we go forward this new knowledge is deliberately linked to what they already know. This is doubly useful: the old material receives the revision and repetition necessary for consolidation in memory, yet this material also gives us a foundation upon which to construct new knowledge and skill.

The process should be both organic and structured.

So in practical terms, how might this look in the classroom?

 Explain new knowledge through analogy to prior learning. Introduce Shylock in comparison to anther racially disabused character. Crooks, perhaps. Or craftily return to key themes – power, gender, inequality – in every new text we teach. It is about creating an interweaving narrative that teacher and student can constantly dip in and out of.

Always build new knowledge into regular classroom dialogue. Once we have taught students word-classes, for example, we should never accept a comment like, “The word ‘gloomy’ gives me the sense that something bad is about to occur.” We should insist that they say “the adjective ‘gloomy’” instead.

Include regular memory practice. This could be in the form of quizzes, games or homework tasks. The important factors are that students must be compelled to use their memories rather than to reread their notes, and that they must be regularly expected to refer ever-backwards: to last lesson, last week, last term or even last year. I have written about memory platforms previously.

Pepper classroom discussions with memory questions. Which character from Much Ado About Nothing does he remind you of? Is this sentence written in the active or passive voice? Who presents the most optimistic vision of the future – Steinbeck or Priestley?

Redraft regularly. This allows students to revisit, revise and hone their work regularly; it also provides a useful chance to consolidate subject content. I have written about redrafting strategies and benefits here.

Provide an end-of-year goal that brings everything together. This might be a test or an exam covering all the content from the past year. Our year 9s will be completing a discursive essay on a philosophical theme or question of choice. This will be assessed primarily on the quality of written expression, yet for inspiration and examples they will draw on the literature they have covered through the year. The brainchild of our head of KS3 Jo Grimwood, this builds natural repetition and cohesion into curriculum planning.


So that students have the chance to gain, retain, link-back and transfer-forward knowledge and skills, the past should be constantly and deliberately kept alive in English lessons. With end of course English GCSE exams on the near horizon such structured immersion might just help students avoid potential catastrophe by helping them to manage much of their revision as they go. Whether we like it or not, fostering the retention of knowledge will become ever more important to English teaching.


Why is ‘challenge’ such a challenge?


‘Challenge’ is one of those buzz-words being bandied about in education at the moment. You must challenge your students! Students in the UK are institutionally under-challenged! The new curriculum is designed to create rigour and challenge!

 In the video below – nicked from Shaun Allison’s post on challenge – John Hattie clarifies the great potential of acceleration and challenge. Most exciting to me is this statement: if students don’t understand something then ‘give them harder stuff, then come back’.

I have a hunch that ‘challenge’ might singularly be the most important day-to-day consideration for the average classroom teacher like me. But why do I have such a difficulty establishing and maintaining a challenging environment? Three answers come to mind immediately:

1. We make simple content and tasks more challenging than we need to. A classic example of this is the ‘dictionary challenge’ in English. We have students root out the meaning of words even though these meanings might have been more efficiently and more effectively explained by us in the first place. In the name of challenge, we have provided a task that slows down learning. Hattie’s simple advice – “tell them the answer and then show them how to get there” – is one way to counter this problem. Quite why we have developed an education culture where explaining things explicitly is seen as a weakness is quite beyond me.

2. The time for good planning is hard to find. If we are going to up the standard of our existing content and tasks, or develop alternatives, then we need the time to do this. So what do we drop instead? This is likely to be controversial but the answer seems obvious: the quantity of marking. Why? Because marking a piece of work that has not challenged the child means that we are unlikely to be able to give useful feedback. Yes, marking should inform challenge, but many teachers with a high marking load would, I am sure, agree that it can directly limit our capacity to plan more rigourous work.

3. The risk factor. It is safer for me to ask my students to, for instance, write a persuasive letter about uniform to the headteacher than it is to ask them to write a satirical argument. This is especially so if the outcomes of this task will be recorded as part of whole-school tracking and monitoring, and even more so if it is part of GCSE coursework or controlled assessment. The fear of taking risks is a side-effect of our current accountability culture.

However, before we challenge our students we must challenge ourselves and as such I have been reflecting on three types of challenge through the prism of my subject, English.

Challenge through content. At first glance, this is the one that we would seem to have less control over. The National Curriculum, exam syllabuses, school and subject leadership all hold sway here. In English, content is bound up in the texts we teach. A simplistic argument is that the more challenging the text is, the more our students will be challenged. This inevitably leads to a thornier issue: what constitutes a challenging text? Do we only choose our texts from the ‘dead white men’ of the established literary canon, aiming to immerse our students in what Matthew Arnold dubbed, ‘the best that which been thought or said’? Or do we adopt a pluralistic approach, teaching modern texts from a diversity of writers along with the traditional?

It seems to me that the issue here is not just which texts are being taught, but how they are being taught. Is skirting over Great Expectations, reading a handful of chapters on the way and superficially touching on plot and character, any more challenging than, say, a detailed full-text reading of The Hunger Games which explores sophisticated interpretations and insights? If we are going to create the conditions for challenge, how the content is delivered is as important as what the content is. Our explanations, our questions, and how we encourage students to talk and think about the content are key.

Challenge through task. Here the teacher has more control. If we are going to challenge our students, we must set them harder tasks – so the argument goes. Take these two essay questions taught by Teacher A and Teacher B:

Teacher A: How does Steinbeck present Lennie?

Teacher B: How does Steinbeck reveal his moral, social and philosophical ideas through the character of Lennie?

Clearly question two is the tougher question, but would it necessarily elicit the better answer? Taught well it is unquestionably a stronger question, yet I think it is entirely possible that the students of Teacher A might learn more than the students of Teacher B. Why? Because, once again, the quality of teaching that counts for more than the perceived challenge of the task. Exemplars, modelling and scaffolding must be of the highest realistic standard, yet also allow room for independence and a chance to think and struggle. Be that as it may, we must also be careful not to get too caught up in raw outcomes – the quality of the outcome might not always be an indication of the quality of learning.

Individual challenge. Challenge becomes more complex when we add into the mix the fact that for each student challenge means a slightly different thing. In a sense, it is easier to think of our students working towards two concurrent challenges: a) those that pertain to the whole class such as write a persuasive speech and b) those that pertain to the individual such as use at least five different sentence starters across a piece of extended writing. I like the idea of setting a ‘challenge’ for the next extended task when giving feedback, rather than a generic ‘target’ – it just seems more stimulating.

In spite of the caveats, the breaking-down and simplifying of challenge in terms of content, task and the individual has made things clearer for me. Here are a few decisions I have made recently in light of this:

  • To teach Y8 students how to write a Shakespearean sonnet.
  • To introduce Y9 students to a range of historic political speeches before they write their own on significant social issues (and not whether football is better than rugby!).
  • To spend more time planning the way I word my questions and explanations.
  • To ensure that students redraft work more often so as to complete the challenges I have set for them.
  • To bring encourage my Y11 top set to begin their ‘conflict poetry’ essays with famous quotes about war.
  • To set individual challenges for my KS3 students.
  • Not to change much with Y10s because the English Literature exam they will be sitting in May is challenging enough!

One final thought – forgive me if I am stating the bleeding obvious. I have come  to the conclusion that challenge is almost entirely bound up in the way we immerse children in language. This might be the language we encourage students to read, write, speak and think in, along with the language we model through speech and the written word. Ultimately, if we raise the quality of language, we raise the challenge. Simple?

Related posts:

Differentiating the responsive way

The Everest writing scaffold

Multiple models and the journey to freedom

jean brodie

To me education is a leading out of what is already there in the pupil’s soul. To Miss Mackay it is a putting in of something that is not there, and that is not what I call education, I call it intrusion…”

Muriel Spark, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

In recent months, I have been considering the importance of modelling writing – I’ve even written a couple of blog posts about it (here and here). Yet despite my fervour for modelling, in the back of my mind a nagging doubt has continued to haunt me. Could my use of models be denying students a chance to become free writers, to find their own voices, to find their own way? In the words of the inimitable Miss Jean Brodie, is my modelling an unnecessary ‘intrusion’ when I should be ‘leading out’ the latent creativity of my students?

Whether true, pure creativity exists is a philosophical question this pragmatic teacher would like to avoid for today. It is certainly true that many English teachers, myself included, have been inspired by the idea that reading and writing can set us on the path to self-expression; for a teacher to constrain this freedom is  tantamount to tyranny, we might argue. Room for thinking has been paramount to my own development as a writer – why deny it to others?

Unfortunately, however, the blunt reality presented by the literacy capabilities of many of my students has dulled some of this idealism. It has been further dented by my reading of Hattie and Yates’ Visible Learning and the Science of how we learn, with its persuasive emphasis on the importance of modelling and the use of worked-examples.

You see, the purposeful and explicit use of models in the classroom, whether through exemplars or ‘live’ writing, is absolutely vital, especially when our students have had deficient literacy input at home. Models provide the opportunity for our students to see how tone, structure, grammar and ideas can become knitted together in a cohesive whole beyond the sum of the parts. How can you ‘lead out’ something when these seeds have yet to be sewn?

Be that as it may, all is not lost. I believe that creativity is not inspired by sticking our heads in the sand and hoping; it can be taught, and the way to do this is simple. We model more frequently, not less, and, like Ron Berger, we immerse our students in a multiplicity of exemplars. There are three obvious types: the teacher model, the student model and the outside expert model (written by the professional writer from past or present). All should be treated with equal importance.

Before I share some ideas, let me tell you the wonderful tale of how, with a gap of several years, I witnessed one student’s writing inspire another’s. Five years ago, I taught Lucy, an incredibly gifted writer. She wrote a wonderful piece from the perspective of an aged Beatrix Potter whose thoughts and imaginings, now blighted by dementia, had become consumed by the nostalgic memories of her literary creations. Three years later, I read and discussed this piece with another class. One boy, Simon, significantly less talented than Lucy, produced a remarkable echo of her work. It told the tale of a parish vicar looking back over his life and, word by word, renouncing his faith in God. Simon had been brought up in a strictly Christian family. Writing this remarkably restrained piece, inspired in tone, content and structure by a girl he had never met, was of profound importance to a young man who may have been questioning his own faith.

So how can we use written models in the classroom in such a manner that teaches our students the technicalities of writing, yet does not unduly constrain?

Use more than one model. Time and resourcing constraints mean that, more often than not, our students are introduced to only one exemplar. This can be dogmatic. Instead, we need to show them that there are many possible paths to successful writing. Providing three or more very good but very different exemplars (perhaps just as paragraphs), and asking students to select their favourite can lead to a rich discussion that triggers inspiration in different ways.

Use teacher models in conjunction with student models as often as possible. Only two weeks ago I asked my mixed-ability Y9 class to write a letter from Much Ado About Nothings Benedick to an agony aunt. I figured that the task would be tough and so they needed to see an example first a letter I wrote from an agony aunt, this time from Beatrice. This was great for the weaker students, who captured the tone and style better than I could have imagined in their Benedick letters. Unfortunately, a few too many strong writers took the safe option by parroting my model. Luckily, not all of them did, and when I repeat the task I have a number of interesting and better – exemplars to share and critique alongside mine.

Benedick letter Jack Manger

Make sure we are constantly sniffing out new models. Like Ron Berger with his portfolios of excellence, I know I must now adopt a consistent strategy for identifying and storing models. Every time I mark a set of books, my aim is to scan at least two pieces of good quality work using the CamScanner app on my iPhone, which is then send to my Dropbox folders. Too often in the past, I have not done this and great work has been lost. If I leave it until the end of the year to collate, it never happens.  My aim now is to extend this approach across my department; as teachers we can gain fresh insights from regularly reading the great work of our colleagues’ students and, more importantly, so can our classes.

Consider the sequencing of models. The order we present models to our classes can lead to constraint or freedom. Even though we must seek to create a common conception of excellence, it is important to avoid creating a power structure where the teachers ideas are made to seem more valid than others. I find that more freedom is created when my teacher model a precise teaching tool often designed around the key grammatical concepts I am trying to introduce or key weaknesses that need to be addressed is shared before student models. Implicit in this sequence is the idea that my expectation can be achieved in a variety of ways

Use anthologies of student examples creatively. Each year in my English department we create an anthology of the best KS3 writing, which leads to a presentation evening. I keep sets of these anthologies as a teaching resource that can be used in a multitude of ways both in class and as homework before students complete their own writing.

Create degrees of separation between the model and the students’ work.Take a great example (established author/teacher/student) and then ask students to ‘plan backwards’ – write the plan we imagine the original writer designed. After this, students plan their own piece of work. This creates a greater degree of separation from the original exemplar, giving students more room to move.

Build in different entry points in mixed-ability classes. Modelling for freedom can be tricky with a mixed-ability class. In general, the more able the writer, the less we want to constrain. Heres one simple strategy for using a  model that works well.

1.    Share a first paragraph (preferably ‘live’ with the help of the class).

2.    As a whole-class shared exercise, structure a plan for the next few paragraphs (maybe six in length.)

3.    Ask stronger writers to write their own plans – using the shared one as a model – and let weaker writers (if they need to) copy out the shared plan as their own.

4.    If necessary, the very weak (or very uninspired) can copy out the first paragraph and carry on from there. All others will use their own plans – either the class plan or their own.

Model a chain of influence. Demonstrate how good writers are inspired by one another by showing how one student has taken the flavour of anothers writing and made it their own – like Lucy and Simon. Both pieces of work are shown side-by-side so that the class can consider the workings of influence and inspiration.

Plan before models are introduced. This way students can own their ideas and structures, but we can have more say over the technicalities and grammatical constructs they employ.


As the father of a two year old boy, I am now in a front row seat as his language bursts forth. It has taken time, patience, and plenty of modelling from many people to get to this stage. Over time, over years, over key stages, is it wishful thinking to imagine that a multiplicity of models might encourage written language, in all its freedom, to burst forth in our classrooms?

Related posts:

Tom Sherrington – Defining the Butterfly: Knowing the Standards to set the Standards

David Fawcett – Can I be a little better at knowing what high quality work looks like

Responsive questioning


Before Christmas I wrote about teacher responsiveness and differentiation – here. Since then I have been considering the importance of responsive questioning, of how we respond to the unpredictable – and sometimes downright bizarre! – verbal feedback we receive from our students. Once again, this is about our on-the-spot agility, our knowledge of our students and our subject expertise.  We are actors in a forever unscripted play; planning can only get us so far.

It is helpful to consider the purpose of questioning in the classroom before we begin. It often seems a vague area. Is it to check learning or is it to springboard further learning? Even though both are relevant, I am more interested in the latter than the former. For me, it is about helping students to formulate new perceptions, about challenging lazy preconceptions and, in English at least, about encouraging nuanced interpretations. When successful, questioning will lead to discussion, and it is in these episodes that we build our relationships with our classes and cement the ethos of our classroom. Perhaps the crucial point is that questioning, I think, is about initiating and sustaining a high level of academic rigour; the more we probe, the more we push the discussion forward, the less we leave unchallenged, the better our students learn. For me, this is just about the toughest skill to master. I struggle along, if I am honest, failing at it every day.

When it comes to this kind of questioning, I am wary of ‘silver bullets’.  The current thinking tends to advise the following:

   Questions should be thoroughly planned before the lesson.

   We should avoid hands up.

   We should avoid too much praise.

   We should avoid repeating what our students have said.

   We should use random-selecting strategies – such as the lolly stick – to avoid allowing some to dominate and others to remain passive.

   We should use PPPB. Pose a question, Pause, Pounce on a student and then immediately Bounce it to another student without interfering.

   The teacher should keep quiet and let the students do the talking.

All of this advice is useful, but only partially so. Our complex classroom environments are far more fluid than some would have us think; more than anything else, we should listen to our students.

I remember hearing the ex-England goalkeeper, David James (he of the ‘Calamity James’ sobriquet), describing how he would spend hours in the shower visualising penalty saves over and over again. He found that this helped to hone his reactions on the pitch. In this manner, I have attempted a ‘visualisation’ of a short questioning sequence to demonstrate the kind of sharp thinking required.  I am asking the class about Curley’s Wife from John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men.


ME: So, what do you think Curley’s Wife’s role in the novel is? You have twenty seconds to think about it…


ME: Josh, what do you think?

(My question was deliberately vague; I am after divergent thinking here. I pick Josh for a reason – like some others in the class, he jumps to conclusions too quickly. This is my chance to challenge these pre-conceptions from the off.)

JOSH: I think she is meant to be the evil character because she destroys the dream.

ME: When do we see her behave like this?

JOSH: Well, when we first see her she cuts off the light in the doorway.

ME: Is that enough to call her ‘evil’?

JOSH: No, not really. She also treats Crooks badly and flirts with Lennie which leads to him killing her.

ME: Interesting. Matt do you agree with Josh?

(I have probed Josh to give evidence, yet remained non-committal about his response.  Matt’s thinking is more refined and I know he will challenge Josh. If I had used a random selector at this point, there may have been the potential of the discussion finding itself in a repetitive cycle without the degree of insight I am searching for. The PPPB system is working well, but I do feel you have to pick your second student wisely. Most likely, students will all be rehearsing their answers to the initial question in their minds, so to ask for feedback on Josh’s opinion too takes a degree of multi-tasking; this may have an impact on the working memory of some leading to a muddled point.)

MATT: To an extent, but the way Steinbeck describes her death makes her seem weak and defenceless.

ME: Do you remember how Steinbeck described her?

MATT: No, not quite.

(Emily’s hand goes up. I nod to her. If I did not allow ‘hands-up’ at times this useful addition would not have occurred.)

EMILY: She was “very sweet and young.” (I look back at Matt. He is used to my body language. He knows I expect him to say more.)

MATT: So ‘young’ shows… (I shake my head; ‘shows’ is a banned word) illustrates that she is just an innocent child.

ME: Right everyone. Josh suggests that Curley’s Wife is evil, yet Matt feels she is innocent. Have a think about it. Where do you stand?

Pause. Choose Sian.

SIAN: Well, I think she has some of the characteristics of a villain but she’s also a victim. Steinbeck was making a comment about women in those times: Curley’s Wife is a victim of a masculine society who has no choice but to be the villain.

ME:  A* answer, Sian. Wow. That’s the kind of balanced interpretation we’re looking for everyone.

(Because, for me, class discussion is about searching together for the best ideas, I think it is important to stop and draw attention to quality answers. If praise is over-used, I find it can put a stopper on the discussion; you can inadvertently send out the message that that was good enough, no more need be said. )

ME: So, Sian, are you sure there were no other choices available to her?

(All assumptions, even the best, can be challenged.)


The sequence above certainly represents a good day at the office (and, yes, my students rarely speak as incisively as Sian). Responsive questioning requires knowledge of the student, knowledge of the subject and lots and lots of listening. When students are less forthcoming, I often try the following:

   Give the student the answer you are looking for and ask them to explain how you got there.

   Give them two options, and get them to explain which they agree with most.

   Scaffold the sentence for them. ‘On the one hand, Curley’s Wife is the villain of the story, yet on the other…’

   Revert to hands-up mid-discussion. I tend to bounce a question round and when it begins to dry-out, I will listen to some hands-up. Is it right to leave great thinking unshared?

   Turn the tables. This is one of my personal favourites. The teacher takes on a role and the students question you in this role. On many an occasion I have found my meagre dramatic skills pushed to the limit in the role of a character or an author.

   Embark on a round of quick-fire closed-questions to cue memory and then go back to the original question.

   Stop the discussion and teach. I often find myself frustrated when the discussion has not elicited the level of perception I am after. I probably should not feel this way; it is entirely normal. As the expert in the classroom it must be the right thing to stop wherever we are to explain the learning they have not yet grasped.

I am dubious about hard-and-fast rules for classroom discussion and questioning. Listening sharply lesson after lesson is a tough ask, yet it is in the glow of these moments that I enjoy being a teacher the most.

warm glow

Further reading:

Tom Sherrington on probing questioning – here. Lots of great probing questions in this post.

Old Andrew on alternative ways to use hands-up – here.

My post on using a stimulus – here.

11/01/14 – Alex Quigley has written a great practical blog on conducting class discussion – here. Make sure you read the comments too.

My butterfly: the sentence escalator

This week’s post is my response to two excellent blog posts I read last week: Alex Quigley’s – here – and Tom Sherrington’s – here. Both posts discussed Ron Berger’s ‘ethic of excellence‘, pointing out the incredible potential of Berger’s approach to redrafting, feedback and resilience. Both posts also urged readers to watch the ‘Austin’s Butterfly’ video which exemplifies Berger’s approach:

‘Austin’s Butterfly’ was a revelation to me, the equivalent of a teaching epiphany. The gauntlet had been thrown down – I knew I had to respond right away in my own classroom. Much of my thinking at the moment revolves around two interrelated areas: how to guide my students towards making conscious decisions about sentence structure choices, but also how to help my students develop an academic register during verbal feedback.

So this week I have invented and developed what I am going to dub ‘The Sentence Escalator’, a way of transforming unstructured verbal feedback into lovingly and diligently crafted sentences. The chart below shows how it works, from bottom up (you will probably need to click on it):

 sentence escalator

The initial verbal comment is moulded into shape, extended-upon – or both – in a way that involves the whole class. The teacher’s language expertise is also important: at times a sentence must be scrapped or completely reorganised. “A sentence is never finished,” has become my new mantra (in fact, this week I have also banned the word ‘finished’ from my classroom). Ultimately, the long-term aim of this task is to ‘close the gap’ between the original verbal comment and the final written sentence, which is why it is important to reflect on the process for next time.

Here is how my year 9s ‘escalated’ a sentence when writing from the perspective of a WW2 soldier:

1. Verbal comment from Student A: “He’s drinking alcohol to calm his nerves.”
2. Verbal sentence from Student B (written up on the board): “I am drinking an alcoholic beverage to calm my nerves and desperation to stay alive.”
3. Written improvement (after extensive class critique) from Student C: Trembling in fear, I picked up a bottle of whiskey, my hand shaking like a boat.
4. After more editing on the board: Trembling, I grasp a bottle of whiskey, my hand shaking like the boat we stand in.

Here is how my year 11s extended an idea when analysing the effectiveness of language in an extract from Jessica Ennis’ autobiography:

1. “The word ‘pluck’ is like she’s lucky.”
2. “The word ‘pluck’ could have connotations of luck.”
3. The verb ‘pluck’ could have connotations of luck because she has been chosen out of many, yet also could have connotations of talent because she has been specifically chosen.
4. In a student’s book: The verb ‘plucked’ could have connotations of luck, perhaps suggesting to the reader that Ennis is very fortunate to be in the situation she is in; however, this is actually very much contradictory with the truth about athletes (concerning how much effort and hard work they put in to achieve their goals). This illustrates Ennis’ intention to make herself seem like any other girl her age in an effort to appear modest, which links into her description of herself as being ‘ordinary’.

Aside from its beautiful simplicity, I see a number of advantages of this strategy:

• It begins to instil Dweck’s ‘Growth Mindset’ – the perfect sentence must remain elusive and as a result we can all write a bit better (teacher included).
• It allows for the seamless integration of language skills and knowledge. As basic concepts are built-upon, so the sentence (or sentences) are extended or scrapped in favour of more complex alternatives. Imagine a lesson, or series of lessons, where a simple sentence containing a simple concept was gradually built upon. It certainly has a cross-curricular appeal.
• It allows for swift and immediate teacher-facilitated feedback on writing skills.
• It encourages the teacher to hone the language skills required for their subject. If the teacher is unable to model the academic ‘genre’ of their subject, how can students – especially those who are not exposed to such language at home – be expected to write well in this genre?

So, there you go. My mini-butterfly has taken wing…

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My friend Gav McCusker has been utilising a similar strategy called layered writing when helping students to elaborate on their ideas.