Oven-ready, Hello Fresh or Just Eat? What’s the beef about pre-planned lessons?

Another weekend, another Twitterstorm. The Policy Exchange have just released a paper arguing for more availability of ‘coherent curriculum programmes’ which include, among other things, lesson plans, text books and lesson resources such as worksheets. Unfortunately the TES reported this as ‘The solution to the workload crisis? Stop teachers designing their own lessons’  which, understandably, has gone down like a bucket of cold sick on Twitter.  The fear being that this augers the triumph of the neo-liberal take-over of education, with lesson plans direct from Pearson delivered straight to the classroom by Amazon drone.  Or, to refer to my possibly obscure title, delivered by motorbike by Just Eat, with the teacher’s role limited to opening the plastic cartons and serving them out; lamb bhuna tonight, whether you want it or not.

Having read the entire article, what the article is actually proposing is something much more reasonable: debatable, but reasonable. The argument goes that the 2014 National Curriculum is not being implemented as well as it possibly could because the appropriate resources and training to implement it well either don’t exist, or if they do exist, are hard to locate among the myriad of online resources. It bemoans the current situation where many teachers trawl through online resources, of possibly dubious quality, late into the night, as they attempt to plan each and every lesson ‘from scratch,’ although in reality, probably ‘from Twinkl.’[1]   This is wrong, the report argues, because the ‘lesson by lesson’ approach is highly unlikely to result in a coherent curriculum that hangs together across the year groups, or that provides sufficient provision for revisiting previous learning. The workload argument is more of a side issue in the report, not its main thrust. Its main thrust is about having a coherent curriculum.

I’m all in favour of coherent curriculum. Indeed, in this blog I argue for curriculum design that has coherence not only within each specific subject, but across subjects.  Yet the type of ‘3D’ curriculum I’m advocating is extremely time consuming to write. We’ve been at it for almost 2 years and it’s not where I want it to be yet. The same situation is being replicated across the country. In my ideal world, the DfE would pay me and my selected Twitter mates to devote ourselves to this task, but since (doubtless due to unintended oversight) the report fails to mention me explicitly by name, it comes up with the suggestion that the Government should have a curriculum fund that brings ‘teachers with curriculum planning ideas together with institutions who can provide quality assurance and wider scale distribution.’p36  The kind of institutions it posits as being in a position to do this are multi-academy trusts, learned societies, subject associations and museums.  What about schools not in MAT’s, I’d argue? As otherwise that means the vast majority of primary schools would be overlooked, and surely some of us have something to offer? And what about the BBC?

So, while I might argue with the detail about who might and might not secure funding to write detailed, coherent curriculum programmes, I think this is an excellent idea. I’d much rather use a curriculum resource written by a bunch of teachers in partnership with, say, a museum than by most educational publishers.  Especially if there existed a range of quality assured, kite marked resources that schools could choose to use, if they wanted to. Many primary schools already use ‘off the peg’ curriculum packages, usually for discrete subjects but occasionally across the curriculum. [2]  What is lacking is the all-important question of quality assurance. At the moment, schools buy in all sorts of ready-made packages for aspects of their curriculum.  With Ofsted signalling its intention to scrutinise the quality of the curriculum (which in a primary school context is shorthand for ‘everything other than English and maths’), primary headteachers are tearing their hair out trying to rustle up a coherent curriculum offer for the foundation subjects while secondary heads fret about ks3. Just off the top of my head, I can think of the following resources that primary schools of my acquaintance use.[3]  Jolly Phonics, Third Space Learning, Cornerstones Curriculum, White Rose, Literacy Shed Plus, International Primary Curriculum, Developing Experts, Jigsaw PHSE, Discovery RE  Val Sabin PE, Rigolo, Discovery Education Coding, ReadWriteInc, Maths Mastery, Charanga.

The thing that strikes me going through this list is that there are lots of different resources out there for maths and phonics and plenty for those really specialist areas of the primary curriculum where many primary teachers are more than willing to ‘fess up to having little to no subject knowledge and welcome explicit handholding; PE, music, computing.  But for geography and history, I know of nothing except for Cornerstones and IPC, which offer many subjects. I think it is fair to say to both parties that the IPC is not quite what the authors of the 2014 National Curriculum quite had in mind. And neither of these curriculum packages have the sort of horizontal, vertical and diagonal links that  I would argue  an excellent curriculum should be striving to build within and across subjects.

However, I really do understand the horror some teachers are expressing on Twitter today about having the planning of lessons taken away from them. The two main objections are that no ‘off the peg’ lesson can ever hope to meet the specific learning needs of the diverse classes we all teach and that planning lessons specifically for one’s children was one of the best bits of teaching, part of what made the job rewarding.

So, finally, let’s get back to the title.  In the report, the author John Blake suggests that coherent curricular programmes could be thought of as ‘oven-ready’ – presumably a sort of educational ready meal that just needs a bit of warming up. He argues that these would be especially useful for teachers new to the profession or new to a particular subject. And to be honest, even those of us who love lesson planning probably don’t mind using ‘ready meals’ for some subjects where they lack subject knowledge. If you told most primary school teachers that they were not allowed to use externally produced resources for computing, MFL or music, for example, and had to plan every lesson entirely from scratch, then there would be tears. (Except for the highly knowledgeable minority, of course, who might not understand what all the fuss was about).

Blake then goes on to talk about ‘the final foot.’  What he means here is how teachers could take an ‘oven ready’ resource and then use their professional expertise to adapt it as necessary for the realities of their class. Much of the groundwork having already been done, the teacher is freed up to tweak the lesson to fit their children.  This is what I meant by the ‘Hello Fresh’ approach. Hello Fresh is one of those companies that delivers boxes of food with all the ingredients you need to make the particular recipes it also provides. Everything is already in exactly the right quantity, all the cook needs to do is chop, peel, and actually cook the ingredients. Unlike a ready meal, this gives you scope either to follow the recipe slavishly, or, for those who feel confident, add or omit ingredients according to your family’s preferences, play about with cooking times (because you know your cooker best, right) or even go completely rogue and use the ingredients in a completely different recipe, maybe adding in other ingredients bought elsewhere and chucking others.

Yet I understand that some teachers will still object and see this as an assault on their professional autonomy and creativity.  When I was a class teacher, I loved lesson planning. So it was with some trepidation that 4 years ago we tried out a particular maths scheme that has very detailed, partially scripted lesson plans. I’m not going to say which one because I’m not specifically arguing for the merits of that particular programme or not, but about the idea of using very detailed plans written by others. (Besides which, many of you will either already know or be able to guess).  Anyway, we got funding with one class. The class teacher was happy to give it a go, though she was already an experienced, skilled teacher.  The reason why she soon loved it was because it wasn’t a ready meal, it was more of a ‘Hello Fresh’ kind of thing.  In fact, you had to tweak the lessons because, as the programme makes quite clear, they are aimed towards the average child and your actual children aren’t average. Some will need more challenge, more depth, others will need more support. So the teacher needed to think about how to adapt every lesson for the particulars of their class. The teacher also needed to decide whether or not to spend more time on a particular lesson, skip over lessons if the class didn’t need them, swap suggested manipulatives for something else, and had the freedom to design their own worksheets or to not use any worksheets at all.

What made this possible was that the programme wasn’t really a set of resources, it was a training programme, of which resources were a part.  Each unit of work included a video explaining key concepts, an overview, links to articles and research, as well as the lesson plans and flipchart slides to go with it. These resources are excellent and go far beyond what any of us in school would have been able to offer. And ours is a school unusually blessed with knowledgeable maths teachers.  There was also some central training and the expectation that the maths leader was regularly coaching teachers new to the programme. Indeed, during the first year, our maths leader, a year 6 teacher, had to teach year 1 maths once a week using the programme, so that she became familiar with it.  Without this training, the resource would not have had half the impact it did.

Now you may argue, if you had to do all that tweaking, what on earth is the point? You might as well have designed the whole thing yourself. Well no, even with the tweaking, lesson planning was much quicker. But why our first teacher really loved it, and why the subsequent teachers to use it also love it, is because it is so clever.  The progression and the way it comes back to topics again and again, the way it builds in reasoning at every step, the way it moves children away from reliance on counting and towards reasoning based on known facts is excellent. We might rate ourselves as excellent maths teachers who can plan fantastic lessons, but we simply do not have the expertise or time to develop a scheme of such quality. What really struck me doing lesson observations one week was how brilliantly progression is planned into the scheme. I saw addition lessons in year 1, 3 and 4 and in each lesson exactly the same structure was used, but with increasing complexity. Given its obvious superiority to anything we could produce, it would be foolish and arrogant to insist that we had the ‘freedom’ to plan our own lessons, just because we liked it. Nor do teachers feel reduced to mere delivery bots. I really feared they might, but that just didn’t happen. Because the lessons made sense. And where, very occasionally, a lesson didn’t seem to work, they had the freedom to teach it again, their way.

That’s not to say we don’t occasionally do things differently. For example, I think this way of teaching telling the time is better, so we don’t use all of their resources for that – just some. And we are encouraged to comment on lessons and suggest improvements which are listened to. Because the resource is online, rather than a textbook, when they adapt the programme, we don’t have to throw out costly resources. Were there to be similar quality programmes in other areas of the curriculum, I would buy them like a shot.

However, I also really understand that many teaches love the creativity that planning affords and would be loath to relinquish it.  On the other hand, just because you love doing something, doesn’t mean everybody does. As Michael Fordham says:

michael f

Instead, as an alternative to moving into leadership, more experienced teachers should have the option to move into curriculum design themselves. This is what happens in Singapore, where experienced teachers have options to move into senior specialist roles that work on areas such as curriculum design, testing, educational research or educational psychology.

With talk here of sabbaticals for teachers, maybe one sabbatical opportunity could be to work within a curriculum development team, producing resources for others to use?






[1] The report doesn’t mention Twinkl, that’s me, being facetious.

[2] I can only comment in detail on primary schools. Maybe it’s different in secondary schools where teachers are subject specialists?  But from talking to many secondary teachers, I don’t think it is as different as all that.

[3] Inclusion in this list does not mean I think the resource is either good or bad. We use some of these; some I wouldn’t touch with a bargepole.

Oven-ready, Hello Fresh or Just Eat? What’s the beef about pre-planned lessons?

Reading for pleasure: a different kind of rigour.

It’s World Book day in 4 days’ time. A colleague is incensed that at her 4 year old’s school, the theme is Shakespeare and the Elizabethan Era whilst on Twitter there’s an amusing thread of suggestions after an exasperated parent shared that at her child’s school, the theme was the Bible. I once caused similar consternation by having a non-fiction theme one year – come dressed as the water cycle or lava for example. When my own children were that age, I would thank God each year for Harry Potter – easiest costume in the world. I never dress up – though quite a few of the staff do – if asked I say I am Miss Trunchball.

The dressing up aspect of WBD has taken on a weird life all of its own, joining the ranks of nativity plays, sports days and school photographs, one of those totemic, quasi-compulsory folk education things which put a primary head teacher at risk of being lynched if cancelled.  I’m sort of agnostic about the concept of WBD itself.  Having a day that particularly  focused on books and reading is quite a good idea (leaving aside dressing up) I suppose, though this year we are doing the 100 million minute challenge so having more of a Book Week than a day, which I think might make it less tokenistic. We’ll see.

I presume it is blatantly obvious that WBD by itself is not an effective strategy in encouraging children to read for pleasure in their own time.  As an icing on the cake celebration event, it’s all well and good, but no one gets to love reading because they came to school dressed as batman and coloured in a bookmark. Having a visiting author can help a bit – though why do this during WBD week?  But if you are really serious about promoting reading for pleasure, or RfP as the cool cats now call it, you need something altogether more systematic.

That word ‘pleasure’ though, is a bit awkward, especially for those of us of more traditionalist hue. Reading for rigour is more our sort of thing. Or reading for cultural capital.  At the very least, reading for Serious Learning Purposes.  Preferably Ibsen.  So let’s remind ourselves of what research says about reading for pleasure and what that might imply for what we do in school.

The OECD report into reading in 2002 found that reading enjoyment is even more predictive of educational success than familial socio-economic status. The difference in reading ability between a child who reads for pleasure for 30 minutes a day and those who never read was more than a year.  This government report from 2012 drew similar conclusions. The link between reading for pleasure and reading proficiency is a correlation. The research does not, cannot, join the dots and prove that the one is causative of the other.  But given the wealth of evidence of close correlation, it is a fairly safe bet that there are few things more likely to engender educational success than making sure that the children we teach enjoy reading and choose to do so independently.

Sometimes this gets interpreted as meaning that the books we read in reading lessons should be specifically geared towards ensuring children love them.  That’s not how I see it.  The books we use in reading lessons should be chosen because they are slightly above the level that children could read on their own.  This might be because the vocabulary and syntax are demanding, or it might be because while the vocabulary and syntax are quite straightforward the structural complexity is demanding (for example, as in Holes). Reading lessons are precursors to English literature lessons at secondary school and are about exposing children to literature most probably would not choose for themselves. They are about the teacher sharing their subject expertise and widening experiences. We hope, of course, that children grow to love these books and we will try and choose the very best examples that are both challenging and great stories or poems. But we do not select ‘for pleasure’ in the first instance.

However, the joy of primary school teaching, and one reason why I am less enthusiastic than some about moving too much in the direction of specialist teachers, is that you are not just their English teacher. Among many different roles, academic and pastoral, the class teacher must see one of their most important duties as that of book whisperer ‘awakening the inner reader of every child.’ Given the link between reading for pleasure and reading attainment, this should not be some optional extra, some nicety, but a (the?) core purpose of every primary  class teacher. The two main strategies teachers should use for this are  reading aloud – usually during the end of day class story – and the careful, skilful encouragement of reading at home.

Yet stressing story time as a vital tool in school improvement may seem a bit…soft.  ‘Is Clare having a funny progressive turn?’ some may ask. Because story time (which incidentally does not necessarily need to happen at the end of the day) does not require planning or success criteria or assessment, because first and foremost it is about enjoying a lovely book together, this can mislead us into thinking that it’s a bit of a cop out, that it lacks the rigour of ‘proper’ teaching and that therefore it is at the very least dispensable and possibly a waste of time.

This is seriously mistaken.  The OECD report goes on to explore the factors that make reading for pleasure at home – what it terms reading engagement – more likely.  And socio-economic factors are not the main determiners.  What really makes the difference is whether or not the family has a culture of valuing reading and talking about cultural maters and doing cultural things.

‘These associations are about twice as strong as between engagement and parental education or occupational status.  Thus the most important set of home disadvantages for schools to overcome in getting students to develop positive reading habits and attitudes are not socio-economic but cultural in character.’  p17 OECD 2002

Given that one in five parents do not spend any time reading with their children and over half of those surveyed spent less than an hour a week, it’s down to us to build that culture. Of course we can try and work with parents too, but that’s got to be on top of introducing children to the wonderful world of books at school. We need to help children build an emotional relationship with books. (See this wonderful project that helps do this in the Early Years) and that means trying to replicate, as far as one can in a classroom with 30 children, the experience of snuggling up with a trusted adult and a wonderful book.  The snuggling is probably going to be metaphorical, but story time needs to try and emulate at least some of the intimacy and bonding that goes on when a child shares a book with their parent at bed time.  Talking about the book together is important – how else will children realise that reading can be an enjoyable social activity? But make sure this does not turn into another literacy lesson.  Reading aloud should not be linked to other ‘work’.  We need ‘to recognise the affective impact of reading to ‘reassure, to entertain, to bond, to inform or explain, to arouse curiosity, to inspire’ (Trelease, 2013:04)

The other key way that teachers can promote RfP is by being very active in helping children choose what they take home to read. Children need guidance with this; they need us to recommend books for them and for these recommendations to be based on knowledge of the child and what makes them tick allied with our own knowledge of children’s books.  Being the sort of teacher who can inspire all the children, even the hard cases, to enjoy reading, is grounded in hard work.  It involves a different kind of rigour from that involved in planning a science lesson for example.  Yet behind both is a need for excellent subject knowledge.  It’s a different kind of work from that required to plan, teach and assess lessons, but acquiring excellent subject knowledge in children’s literature requires a rigorous commitment to read it on a regular basis. I’d suggest that unless a KS2 teacher is reading at least one children’s novel every couple of weeks or so, they are not giving the development of their subject knowledge the attention in warrants.  Developing excellence in being able to promote reading for pleasure is just as grounded in hard work and developing requisite subject knowledge as any other aspect of developing one’s professional repertoire.

In order to help class teachers guide their children’s reading in a more personalised way, we have moved a fair amount of the reading stock out of the library and into classrooms.  The selection in the library was overwhelming for most teachers, let alone the children. So now each class has a carefully curated selection of books that each teacher is committed to getting to know (over time, as far as possible).  (Read this blog for how a senior leader without his own class also does this).  We’ve used a disaggregated INSET day to give teachers a head start on this.

And if we are really serious about promoting reading for pleasure, not because it’s nice – although of course it is – but because it’s important, then we need to put our money where our mouths are and devote curriculum time to reading for pleasure.  So this means time where children can read the books they have chosen (albeit with careful guidance from their wonderfully knowledgeable teacher) rather than the book they are reading in their reading lesson. What is more *trigger warning* – potentially ‘progressive-type’ advice ahead – these sessions should try and emulate, as far as possible, the sort of environment one inhabits when we read for pleasure ourselves.  We probably don’t read sitting bolt upright at a desk when we are reading for pleasure at home.  While sofas-for-all and cappuccinos are probably not viable in your average class room, we might run to the odd cushion and relax the usual expectation to SLANT. In fact, perhaps children should SLOUCH (Some Lie On oUr Carpet Happily? – yes I know it’s weak, tweet me a better one).  What is more, these sessions should not be silent. Children should be actually encouraged to read together, to talk together about what they are reading.  You know you have grown a vibrant reading for pleasure culture when children make spontaneous reading recommendations to one another and to you.  When there is a waiting list for class favourites, but friends recommend alternatives while they wait. We have given over two reading lessons a week to independent reading sessions like this.  Which sounds stingy but feels daringly decadent.

Good luck with your World Book Day endeavours. The latest weather forecast in my neck of the woods is for snow – so maybe we will all be closed anyway? Even more reason to make sure they have a good book to read at home!


Reading for pleasure: a different kind of rigour.

Why you are both right. Early Years vs Traditional teaching

This blog has taken an age to write. Partly because I realised I needed to read more Early Years research before wading in and partly because I am genuinely torn between the teaching approaches informed by what cognitive science teaches us about memory – the stuff labelled ‘traditionalist’ and by what is held up as good early years practice.  I can read something like this by Quirky Teacher and completely understand where she is coming from, yet also believe she is misunderstands why Early Years style play is important. Similarly, when I read Early Years people bang on about play and independence, creativity and curiosity I can’t help thinking that Early Years practice could be transformed if only Early Years people knew more about how long term memory is built through retrieval practice and the central place of knowledge in enabling independence, creativity and curiosity. I was going to call this blog ‘Early Years vs traditional Teaching: why you are both wrong’ before remembering the wise saying of F.D.Maurice.  ‘A man [sic] is most often right in what he affirms and wrong in what he denies.’  Hence the revised title. What we really need is a genuine conversation and willingness to learn from one another. I hope this goes some way towards this, though I may well just end up annoying both ‘sides’ equally.

Sometimes when I cross the threshold into our Early Years unit, I feel like I’m entering a different time zone. They have lunch at 11 30! Perhaps they operate under Central European Time here? Or, given the sturdy outer clothing they are wearing as they fearlessly interact with children in the middle of a raging blizzard, maybe it’s more like Moscow standard time? There are other differences too, in some ways reminiscent of visiting the USA; two places divided by a common language.

I jest and exaggerate, but nowhere is the difference more felt than in the understanding of the word ‘play’.  In ks1 and 2, playtime is that time where teachers run around like mad, getting ready for the next lesson while also trying to fit in a trip to the loo and, if they are really lucky, a cup of tea, while the children are outside being supervised by someone else, also running around like mad but often forgetting to fit in a trip to the loo until the bell goes. In ks1 and 2, most teachers don’t really take much heed of what the children actually play during breaks, unless whatever it is, is such a cause of friction that they are forced to consider it. Whereas in the Early Years, play means something altogether quite different. In Early Years circles, the word play is spoken in reverent hushed tones. Play is where the serious learning happens. Here, teachers are fully, 100% involved in attending to this play, sometimes gently nudging it in fruitful directions, sometimes giving it a big old heave, sometimes leaving it well alone, their finely tuned Early Years antennae letting them know which course of action to take when.

Sometimes outsiders don’t quite get this play and think it’s just common or garden, letting-off-steam-before-maths play. They perceive the adult’s role – particularly if the play is happening outside, to be akin to being a playground supervisor, and a particularly lacklustre supervisor at that.  Since they do not (yet) possess their own set of Early Years antennae, they are completely unable to perceive the rich learning possibilities unfolding before their eyes.  They just don’t get that very young children need time to learn with their bodies as well as their minds all sorts of things we forget we once didn’t know. Things that you discover rather than get taught. That water flows downhill, that metal feels cold but wood doesn’t, what ‘heavy’ feels like, how a cube fills up space in a different way to a sphere to name but a tiny proportion of the folk physics that very young children need to learn. Or the folk biology; this is what an ant looks like, bugs like hiding in cool dark places, grass feels crunchy underfoot when it’s frosty and goes brown and dry if you pick it.   Then there’s learning to share and to negotiate and to be assertive and to apologise and generally get along with people. We could call that folk psychology. In fact, David Geary has written about these forms of biologically primary knowledge.  Our brains, he contends, have evolved in such a way that naturally disposes us to learn about our environment and how to interact with others. We learn this stuff – folk physics, folk biology and folk psychology – when we are young through play and exploration. Folk psychology enables us to understand other people, folk biology enables us to understand other species and folk physics gives us an understanding of the physical world. Our brains evolved to do this because humans who could cooperate and compete with other humans, and who knew how and where and what to hunt and, crucially, how to avoid being hunted themselves were more likely to survive and reproduce than humans who were were less good at these things.

And all of that is before we even begin to realise that bodies of Reception aged are not quite finished being made and certain muscles are still developing, so learning how to negotiate space, how to balance or use scissors is a big ask. Very young children need time and encouragement within the safe context of play if they are to learn to use their bodies effectively in the future. The phrase ‘not developmentally appropriate’ does sometimes appear to be banded about by some EY practitioners in a way that seems to mean ‘I don’t like it’, but it is actually true that having the muscle development required to hold a pencil properly does depend on a whole load of precursor skills that some children at the start of Reception may not yet have acquired and that play can help develop (alongside some pretty direct teaching where necessary).

building blocks of writing

Animals, including humans, have evolved to develop biologically primary knowledge through play.  The environment enables mammalian young (perhaps other classes of animal too?) to learn this, with a bit or parental prodding along the way. For humans, with the added complication of language, a lot more than just prodding is needed.

Geary’s work is cited to argue against schools specifically teaching creativity, collaboration or problems solving as things in their own right.  Rather, schools should teach the hard stuff we are not evolutionarily evolved to learn, the biologically secondary culturally derived knowledge that takes hard work to acquire and is much more efficiently taught than left for each generation to discover for themselves afresh. Once we’ve got some of this hard stuff, then we’ve got something we can problem solve, or collaborate and be creative with.

For Early Years children though, the biologically primary knowledge acquisition is for most children not yet completed, even by Reception. This is why play is so central to effective Early Years practice and why Early Years professionals work hard at creating environments that enable children to acquire this biologically primary knowledge as effectively as possible.

But why, you might ask, do they need to do this if the capacity to learn biologically primary knowledge is in-built? Surely it will just happen? However biologically primary knowledge is in-built to happen within an environment that enables it.  Take away that environment, and this vital learning does not happen, with undesirable consequences. Rats, for example, deprived of playmates, grow up to be adult rats with anger management problems or social anxiety. Yes, really![1]

Modern Western culture, for all its joys and benefits, does not necessarily provide our young with the best kind of environment in order for them to fully develop the biologically primary knowledge they need. As marvellous as modern human culture is, it takes us away from direct interaction with the natural world, particularly if we live in cities. Our ability to acquire all the folk biology and physics we need is therefore curtailed.  Our ability to develop the folk psychology we need to thrive is also limited by modern patterns of social organisation. Our nuclear families remove the swings and roundabouts of living with extended families and the wider tribe.  All the more so if we live in cities or within our individualistic Western culture where there is less social pressure to conform. So, if our children are to develop their full potential, we need to recreate a bit of the environmental immediacy and wider social interaction we would have experienced were we still hunter-gatherers.

So no, we can’t assume that biologically primary knowledge will just happen, cos ‘evolution.’  It need the right environment and positive, caring adult relationships that support children in exploring and taking risks.  What is more, evolution is not known for its inclusivity. We don’t run our schools along the lines of an episode of Blue Planet, with those whose environment is not sufficiently enabling gobbled up by any passing predator. In fact, we go out of our way to identify those whose early environment has not been enabling enough for them to thrive and actively work to compensate for that. This is not to indulge in blaming parents of all disadvantaged children. When you live in an overcrowded flat with no garden; when anti-social, dysfunctional adults congregate in the parks purportedly ear-marked for young children, it’s going to take longer to acquire biologically primary knowledge because the environment is less congenial to acquiring it. In these circumstances in particular, access to space and time to discover, explore, run about, climb, make, break and repair friendships is crucial. Learning outdoors will be especially important for children who don’t get to play outdoors very much. And some parents are dysfunctional, some home environments totally chaotic or totally controlling. There are many ways in which a young child’s development can be thwarted. It is not surprising that this American report found that pre-K education (i.e. Nursery and Reception education in the UK system) was most beneficial for economically disadvantaged children (and dual-language learners for obviously different reasons).

And I haven’t even mentioned the vital role of play in developing language. Teachers of older children are rightly so concerned with teaching tier 2 and 3 words that they perhaps forget that for many children in the Early Years they are still expanding their tier 1 vocabulary. And of course there’s a lot more to learning to talk than just acquiring vocabulary – syntax, morphology and pragmatics (appropriate use of language in context) all of which are developed through play, and in particular imaginative play, be that with other children without adult input or with an adult skilfully enriching the language to which children are exposed. For children who arrive in our schools already with a huge word gap, this skilful adult enriching is absolutely essential .

So I really do understand that play is not just important in the Early Years curriculum; to a certain extend it is the Early Years curriculum. The 50-million-dollar question being, of course, to what extent is play the Early Years curriculum? What about culturally derived biologically secondary knowledge?  To what extent can that be taught through play and how much of precious curriculum time should be allocated to it. Remembering that all our choices have an opportunity cost.  Time can be spent only once – time spent on the carpet learning phonics cannot be spent again developing language through role play – and vice versa. This is where the debate becomes…interesting.

A few weeks ago, Ofsted published Bold Beginnings, the broad thrust of which is arguing that for too many Reception children the curriculum they receive does not enable children to acquire biologically secondary knowledge effectively or early enough. To recap, biologically secondary knowledge (like reading, writing and maths) is culturally specific and has to be explicitly taught rather than discovered. This blog by David Didau explains it well.  (Note: I am the one framing this all through the lens of David Geary’s work, not Ofsted).  In Bold Beginnings, Ofsted were arguing that reading, writing and maths are not sufficiently prioritised in too many Reception classes and that as a result this has the avoidable consequence that some children – particularly disadvantaged children – fall behind their peers and do not end their Reception with sufficient numeracy and literacy to do well in year 1 and beyond.

If Twitter is an accurate gauge of opinion, this has not gone down well with many Early Years practitioners.  There has been much asserting of why play is so important, and why its place must be safeguarded within the Reception timetable, and not just for personal, social and emotional development or the other prime[2] areas. I hope what I have written above not only shows that I understand that, but helps those that are not EY practitioners understand why they bang on and on about it.

However, some (some, not all) of the opposition to Bold Beginnings seems to equate any discussion about more formal learning in Reception classes as akin to opening a portal to Hell. Partly this is because the Early Years is often misunderstood by those who do not work within it. Since, for many teachers of older children, play is what you do when you are not working, any emphasis on play can seem like a frivolous waste of time that could and should be used for ‘proper learning.’  This obviously irritates Early Years teachers no end, and rightly so. It is a view point born of ignorance.

There is a real cultural fault line here, exacerbated by mutual misunderstanding. However, I find Geary’s work really useful in looking afresh at the assumptions of both ‘sides’ in the debate.

Could it perhaps be that while it is true that the importance of play in the Early Years is often misunderstood by non-practitioners, it is also true that biologically secondary culturally derived knowledge is not best learnt through play, but through more direct modes of instruction?  Some Early Years practitioners argue that anything can and should be learnt through play. The reason for this line of argument lies in a strong belief in the centrality of the ‘Characteristics of Effective Learning’ a document that acts as a kind of ‘Ten Commandments’ for EY practice.


At the very heart of Early Years practice is the belief that education exists in order to enable children to become creative and critical thinkers and that in order to do this, children must be able to play, explore and discover things for themselves; to be given space to be the active learners they naturally are.  Direct ‘lesson’ modes of teaching are often seen as intrusive, eating into time that would be better spent letting children discover things independently. Indeed, some would go so far as to see explicit whole class teaching as actually harmful, in that imposing adult goals onto what a child is learning is inherently damaging to curiosity and self-advocacy, particularly if the goal is perceived as being developmentally inappropriate[3].  It would be wrong to present Early Years thinking as monolithic and there is a range of opinion as to the extent play should be coaxed or guided towards learning goals decided by adults and how much whole class teaching is too much. Those who think children should be totally ‘free-range’ are themselves in a minority. However, the overwhelming consensus is that to question the role of play or of active learning as the chief source of learning is damaging the likelihood of children becoming independent, creative, critical thinkers and life-long learners and is therefore heavily resisted. Indeed, there is often a desire to extend the characteristics of effective learning beyond the Early Years – at least into Year 1 and possibly throughout the whole school. After all, what could be more important than developing creative, critical thinkers?

As I said, I am well aware of the reverence with which the Characteristics of Effective Learning (or CofEL) is held be Early Years practitioners, and how devotedly it is defended.  However, I must now turn iconoclast.  CofEL confuses ends with means, is ignorant of the ways in which biologically secondary learning differ from biologically primary, overlooks the role of adult teaching in developing executive functioning and doesn’t understand about the importance of building long term memory or the limits of working memory. It promotes an overly romantic view of learning which, if it were consistently followed, would leave children having to rediscover the riches of centuries of intellectual thought for themselves.

Creative, critical thinking is, of course, the ultimate goal of education. However, it is a mistake to think that this end, excellent in itself, is best achieved by children of any age simply doing lots of creative, critical thinking.  It is even more of a mistake to think that explicit teaching of knowledge is somehow the enemy of creative, critical thinking, rather than its midwife.

Characteristics of Effective Learning deconstructed
Engagement: Playing and Exploring
What CofEL says My commentary
Finding out and exploring

Showing curiosity about objects, events and people

Using senses to explore the world around them

Engaging in open-ended activity

Showing particular interests

Important biologically primary knowledge is mainly learnt through play in a carefully planned, stimulating environment, with adults seeking ‘teachable moments’ and extending language within child initiated play.


However, there are limits to what can be learnt through exploring the world through senses alone – at some point teachers need to introduce biologically secondary knowledge and introduce exploration of the world through learning about what others have already discovered about it, for example sharing a non-fiction book with the class about the life cycle of a chick.


Particular interests may be a starting point but we cannot limit learning to this alone. We have a duty to introduce children to aspects of the world they may initially have no interest in at all.

Playing with what they know

Pretending objects are things from their experience

Representing their experiences in play

Taking on a role in their play

Acting out experiences with other people

Important biologically primary knowledge is mainly learnt through play with adults seeking teachable moments, extending language and also guiding play.


Adults guiding of role play needs to extend language and help children practice executive function skills of inhibitory control, developing working memory and cognitive flexibility.


There is also a place for whole class role play with a specific learning goal (e.g. retelling the story of Little Red Riding Hood, counting how many people there are on a ‘bus’ as people get on and off) as well as child initiated or adult guided role play.

Being willing to ‘have a go’

Initiating activities

Seeking challenges

Showing a ‘can do’ attitude

Taking a risk, engaging in new experiences and learning by trial and error

This is about developing the executive function of cognitive flexibility. Play certainly needs to play a part in developing resilience, but more formal learning equally plays an important role.


These skills can be explicitly taught, including during cognitively demanding activities such as learning to read or write or work a mathematical problem, and then subsequently practised during play.


interventions that include an explicit focus on executive functioning skills do not need to be implemented separately from those focused on instruction in early literacy and math abilities.’[4]

Motivation: active learning
What CofEL says Commentary
Being involved and concentrating

Maintaining focus on their activity for a period of time

Showing high levels of energy, fascination

Not easily distracted

Paying attention to details

The problem with this section of CofEL is that is assumes that motivation is best achieved through ‘active’ learning, the ‘active’ being implicitly contrasted with so called ‘passive’ learning that is assumed to take place during whole class explicit teaching and/or when adults rather than children decide the goal of the learning.


However, what is actually being describe the executive function of inhibitory control: managing distractions, overcoming frustration and disappointment and deferring gratification. While social play is an important practice ground for its development, it is even more important to scaffold the importance of inhibitory control when teaching biologically secondary knowledge that children have not chosen for themselves and may find hard.  If we only seek to develop children’s ability to concentrate on activities that they themselves have chosen to do, far from encouraging a life-long love of learning, we are building them up to expect learning always to be easy and fun. Biologically secondary learning is not always fun, easy or fascinating, particularly at the beginning. It is hard work and learning to deal with the feelings of frustration and powerlessness that learning something new often entails is crucial.  The pay-off for this is the feeling of satisfaction that occurs when we ‘get it’. This involves learning to defer gratification.


Research into the development of executive functioning in young children has shown that this can be actively taught and that

The complex interactions that occur among executive functioning, social competence, and academic skills in preschool classrooms underscore the likely value of blending interventions designed to strengthen working memory, inhibition, and attention control with curricula focused on early literacy and math skills.’[5]


To be sure, teachers need to know how to weave teaching about executive functions and literacy or maths together. Much of this is classic ‘growth mindset’ territory and as applicable to learning number bonds to 10 or how to spell high frequency words or write an ‘s’ as it does to figuring something out during sustained problem solving within play. More guidance on this would be very useful and gratefully accepted by teachers of all age ranges.


Ben Newark describes the wrong-headedness of trying to help children persist in learning by providing them with ‘fun’ activities that attempt to disguise the fact that children are learning well in this blog  (it’s about much older children but applies equally well to much younger children as they begin to learn biologically secondary knowledge.)

The role of the teacher was to sugar the pill by wrapping the unpleasantness of learning up in fun activities in the same way my mum used to disguise paracetamol by crushing it and mixing it in jam.’


Instead we need to exude high levels of energy and fascination in our explicit teaching. This will then rub off onto the children.


And children also need to ‘test for themselves the skills that adults have been scaffolding for them[6]’ within play.  Play is not unimportant here, but its role has been overplayed.


Willingham here discusses the research about how teachers can help children develop self-regulation. Of interest is an American programme called ‘Tools of the Mind’ which explicitly teaches executive functioning through guided play. As we know, what play is, let alone what guided play is, is a contested concept. It would appear from their website that their idea of guided play is very far removed from the kind of child initiated, discovery learning that is often advocated in EY classrooms. For example, children draw a ‘play plan’  before staring an activity and learning, while using play, is very adult directed and scaffolded. This programmed approach takes up 80% of each day. I do not know enough about Tools of the Mind to comment further, but it would be interesting to find out more.


The work of Adele Diamond is mentioned in the Hundred Review (p25) to stress  the importance of supporting the healthy development of executive functions as they are critical to enable children to succeed in school and beyond. This is not contested. What is contested is whether ‘active learning’ through play is the only or the most effective way these vital skills can be developed. Diamond mentions a range of adult led learning experiences that have been shown to develop this (not all applicable to the EY classroom – e.g. Taekwondo!).   The Hundred Review mentions Diamond’s work on executive functioning without mentioning that her findings lead to the conclusion that developing this arises in adult-led experiences.

Keeping on trying

Persisting with activity when challenges occur

Showing a belief that more effort or a different approach will pay off

Bouncing back after difficulties

Enjoying achieving what they set

out to do

Showing satisfaction in meeting their own goals

Being proud of how they accomplished something – not just the end result

Enjoying  meeting challenges for their own sake rather than external rewards or praise

Thinking: Creative and Critical thinking
What CofEL says Commentary
Having their own ideas

Thinking of ideas

Finding ways to solve problems

Finding new ways to do things

This is the most problematic section of CofEL.

All of these are great things to be able to do. The problem with CofEL is that is massively downplays the importance of having knowledge in order to do them. Children cannot think with nothing. They need knowledge to think with.  Children cannot link nothing with nothing. To make links you have to know stuff.  The stuff we are talking about is biologically secondary knowledge which needs to be taught, not discovered. More advantaged children who come from homes where books are read, museums, parks, art galleries and historic sites visited, where conversation involves a wide vocabulary and complicated syntax, where board games are played and maths songs sung might well thrive in this environment for they have picked up background knowledge and language by being taught it at home. For others who do not enjoy these advantages, leaving the acquisition of knowledge and development of vocabulary to what the child might choose to discover through their play is only going to further widen the gap between the word and knowledge rich and poor.

Many settings use focused activities to prevent learning being totally ad hoc.  It is worth settings asking themselves is this is always the best use of time, as a practitioner will have to repeat a focused activity several times over with different groups? Would not a brief, whole class explicit teaching session cover the ground much more efficiently, leaving more time for the practitioners to then spend quality time exploiting ‘teachable moments’ during child initiated play?

Making links

Making links and noticing patterns in their experience

Making predictions

Testing their ideas

Developing ideas of grouping, sequences. Cause and effect

Choosing ways to do things

Planning, making decisions about how to approach a task, solve a problem and reach a goal

Checking how well their activities are going

Changing strategy as needed

Reviewing how well the approach worked

This is mainly about the executive function of cognitive flexibility. As mentioned above in the section labelled ‘Motivation’ by CofEL, while play provides a good practice ground for this, development will be more effective is the practice is preceded by explicit teaching. This explicit teaching can take place as part of the explicit teaching of literacy and maths. For example, writing a sentence involves planning what to say, making decisions about what sounds to use, solving problems such as not remembering how to write a ‘b’  by consulting a chart, checking what you have written so far so that you know which word comes next, changing strategy from sounding out to retrieving a non-decodable sight word such as ‘the’ from the long term memory, and then reading the final completed sentence to review how well you have done.

Narrating these executive functions to the children as they do them helps children realise their importance to the learning process.


But to reiterate – play also provides fertile ground for this too.


The other glaring omission from CofEL is a column entitled ‘Remembering.’  Readers who have read my previous blog on the difference between episodic and semantic memory might see that the CofEL way of thinking about learning is very much about promoting learning through episodic memories rather than through building long term semantic memories. Young children are just as much in need of teaching approaches that build semantic memories as older ones – indeed, more so, since having been alive for a shorter time, they necessarily have less knowledge stored in their long term memory; they literally have less to think with.  This puts more strain on their working memories, which are in any case less well developed. In Reception, we are expecting children to begin to acquire the culturally derived biologically secondary knowledge involved in learning to be literate and numerate.  We do them a huge disservice if we do not build into their everyday learning regular opportunities for retrieval practice. If we are going to teach children cognitively demanding things like phoneme-grapheme correspondences or early addition, the very least we can do if help them store what we have already taught them in their long term memories using the best techniques cognitive science has to offer. To not do so is to mean that children have to learn these things afresh each time. Some children are genetically predisposed to store things in their long term memories easily: most are not. To refuse to do so out of some personal dislike of so-called ‘drill and kill’ is to rob children of the very thing they need to become independent, creative, critical thinkers. Children need to practice their sounds and their sight words daily. They need to subitise quantities to five and then ten, so that their recall of number bonds becomes automatic. Having these schemas in the long term memory massively cuts down the cognitive load involved in reading, writing and maths and sets them up for life. To help children acquire these is to give children the gift that keeps on giving.

This blog is long enough as it is. I had intended to write about why EY practitioners in good faith believe that the research base entirely backs up the CofEL approach. Instead I shall leave you with these links for you to peruse at your own leisure, should you so wish. They explain why this is so much better than I can anyway.












[1] Potegal, M. & Einon, D. 1989. Aggressive behaviors in adult rats deprived of playfighting experience as juveniles. Developmental Psychobiology, 22, 159-172.

[2] The prime areas of learning in the EYFS are Communication and Language, Personal, Social and Emotional Development (including executive functioning) and Physical Development.

[3] For Willingham’s take on developmental appropriateness, read this.

[4] https://46y5eh11fhgw3ve3ytpwxt9r-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/How-Early-Experiences-Shape-the-Development-of-Executive-Function.pdf  p10

[5] https://46y5eh11fhgw3ve3ytpwxt9r-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/How-Early-Experiences-Shape-the-Development-of-Executive-Function.pdf p 10

[6] https://46y5eh11fhgw3ve3ytpwxt9r-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/How-Early-Experiences-Shape-the-Development-of-Executive-Function.pdf p5

Why you are both right. Early Years vs Traditional teaching

Online 1-to-1 lessons: a review of Third Space Learning

As the long autumn term crawls towards the finish line, as well as rehearsals for the Nativity play, Christmas parties and gorging on Quality Street, in all probability someone somewhere is poring over end of term assessments and trying to divine how well Year 6 are going to do in their SATS in May. Data is mulled over for signs of promise in similar fashion to a fortune teller scrutinising tea leaves at the bottom of a cup. What does the future hold?

The more important question being, where performance is not yet as good as we would like it to be, what can we do about it?

Over the years we have used various different strategies to help children catch up where they have gaps  – or sometimes chasms –  in their learning. The front line strategy is, of course, making sure that classroom teaching is as good as it can possibly be, not just in year 6 but throughout the school.

I remember Sir Kevan Collins, now Chief Executive of the Education Endowment Foundation, when he was Chief Executive of Tower Hamlets, talking to us head teachers about the importance of getting our everyday provision right so that we don’t actually need to use intervention anywhere near as much.

He compared this to an imaginary situation where there is a children’s park located close to a cliff edge.

Unsurprisingly, children keep falling off the edge. As a result, the authorities get really good at rescuing severely injured children, their ambulance service is second to none and their A&E provision is superb.

However, no one thinks to actually build a fence at the top of the cliff, to stop children falling off in the first place!

We need to do all we can to build that fence, so that the number of children who need rescuing from mathematical muddle and misconceptions is as small as possible.

For this to happen, we need to make sure our staff are as knowledgeable as possible, and that we’ve provided them with the best CPD and resources to enable this to happen.

However, even with this, the likelihood is that there will be children who could do with an extra something to help them do as well as they can.

It’s not just about SATs; we want our children to go onto secondary school confident mathematicians who have the mathematical fluency to use the algorithms we have taught them effectively and efficiently to solve problems. We want children with both good conceptual and good procedural ability.

And probably most of us have children who need a little bit more preparation to obtain the fluency and make the conceptual connections between the different bits of mathematical thinking they almost-but-not-quite understand.

Over the years, we’ve used a range of different strategies to help these children.  We’ve run after school booster classes run by our class teachers, we’ve bought in a maths specialist teacher to work with small groups or sometimes 1:1, we’ve purchased online programmes for children to practise at home.

All of these work well to some degree, but since both time and money are limited, there are limits to what can be achieved. Teachers – and children for that matter – can only attend so many booster classes.

I doubt many schools have enough money to employ an extra specialist teacher for more than a few hours a week – if that.

Online programmes can really help children build up their fluency, but often the children who use them enthusiastically and get the most out of them are the children who are already really skilled mathematicians.

This year we tried something different.

Over the past year I’ve written blogs for Third Space Learning , and used the selection of excellent resources and CPD material available on their online maths hub, but I hadn’t really considered using their 1-to-1 maths tuition.

When they suggested I could receive the online 1-to-1 maths tuition for 13 pupils in return for participating in filming some of their primary Maths CPD and as payment for writing my blogs, I didn’t initially jump at the chance.

The idea of children learning maths via a tutor situated thousands of miles away and accessed via a computer seemed rather impersonal to me. It’s not like they even saw their tutor, since they only communicated through the headsets they wore.

Might this be like the worst kind of call centre experience? Frankly, it seemed a bit weird to me and I wasn’t sure it would work. But then a friend told me how positively it had gone in her school and how incredible it was to eavesdrop on a session and hear a roomful of children all animatedly explaining their mathematical reasoning to their tutor through their headphones and how much the children enjoyed sessions and the difference it seemed to make.

So this September I decided to give it a go. Recalling Kevan’s cliff top and ambulance scenario, I wanted to concentrate our efforts mainly on our Year 5s. If we could make sure that their learning was really secure in year 5, then building on that in year 6 should be a breeze. Most of the children we targeted were hovering close to the expected level for their age, or maybe just inside it, but not yet securely. Alongside these children, we also included a handful of children with low attainment.

The way the Third Space Learning weekly maths programme  works is that you are allocated one or two hourly slots at the same time each week, during which all pupils do the intervention simultaneously. When your slot is, depends on availability. The schools that book first get the choice of all the slots.

We were a bit slow of the mark but ended up with a 3pm-4pm slot which actually worked well for us. School finishes at 3:30pm but parents were all quite happy to collect their children 30 minutes later.

We timetabled a TA to supervise the session. She collects the children at 2:50pm and together they get the laptops out and headsets on and get logged in, ready for their session to begin at 3pm. Once they are all logged in, they are talking to their tutor within seconds. Soon, the whole room is buzzing with maths chat as each pupil interacts with their tutor, solving maths problems on screen. There is a big emphasis on pupils explaining their reasoning to their tutor; it’s definitely not just drilling through endless problems. Once the session is underway, the member of staff supervising has very little to do, so can get on with something else while the children beaver away.

Before the children started their weekly sessions, they all did an online diagnostic assessment (no tutors or headphones – just a series of questions). From this, the programme recommended the best programme for each child. We then set priorities from among the recommendations on a child by child basis. We chose to concentrate on number and place value, the four operations and fractions, decimals, and percentages, but there is a whole range of options we could have chosen.

There is also the option of the teacher deciding on a week by week basis what are the priorities for each child – I can imagine if we were doing this with year 6 that might be really useful to follow work in class, but we went for the ‘diagnostic’ option where we just assigned priorities at the beginning of the termly block and left the computer to work out what to teach, given their initial diagnostic performance and their progress in each session.

At the end of each session, the software produces a short report for each student that the class teacher can look at should they wish to. This shows what they were working on and how they did. For example:

3sl 1

We can see here that this child started the programme with some gaps in ordering and comparing.  Indeed, the diagnostic assessment had identified this child as being slightly above the year 2 level in terms of this concept. On 19th October, the tutor, guided by the diagnostic assessment, initially selected activities at a year 5 level – ordering and comparing numbers to one million, to try and gauge where the gaps were.

This was very wise, since the child did very well in terms of counting and ordering powers of 10:


However she made slower progress with later parts of the unit, particularly with using < and > , partitioning bigger numbers  and being able to say a number that lay in between two other larger numbers.

So the next session, (2nd November since school journey and half term intervened), the tutor decide to make sure that the year 3 objectives (ordering and comparing numbers up to 1000) were really secure, so any further work was built on really secure foundations.  Then for the next 2 weeks they worked on ordering and comparing numbers beyond 1000, before finally returning to numbers to 1 million on 16th November. By now this is much more secure:


The tutor still does not think this child is quite fluent enough to sign this section off as total secure – hence the final assessment for this concept was emerging at year 5 level – but even so, that’s great progress considering the child started a few weeks early just beyond year 2!

We have also just finished our own end of term assessments (independent of Third Space Learning) and the great news is that this child has increased their standardized score from 103 to 112.

All bar one of the ‘borderline’ children we selected are now securely achieving at age appropriate levels.  The children who started out at a much lower level have also made progress.

The programme isn’t a miracle cure – they are still some distance away from being at the level expected for their age but for the first time they scored enough marks to actually get a standardised score on the correct assessment for their age range. (Previously we have had to use an assessment from a much younger age group in order to generate a score).

For example, one child scored 76 on the year 3 assessment at the end of year 4 but now scored 72 on the year 5 assessment.  Of course the information on how they did at an objective level is much more useful in terms of planning further teaching than this data, but it is still good to know that  the progress they are making is also reflected in other assessments.

What I hadn’t expected was how much the children loved doing the programme. I interviewed each child separately and almost all of them were gushing in their praise. They love it!

They each seemed to have a really good relationship with their tutor (so much for my fears about it being a dodgy call centre experience) and said it was really helping then get better at maths – they could feel the difference and felt more confident.

I asked how it compared to working with an in-the-flesh teacher 1:1. They said both were good and couldn’t choose between them.  The difference for me as a headteacher though is that the Third Space Learning intervention is so much cheaper which means we can target many more children than we could otherwise afford.  They really want to carry on next term and say I should buy more spaces so everybody in their class has the same opportunity to take part.

Disclosure: As mentioned above 13 pupils in my school received 12 weeks of weekly 1-to-1 tuition from Third Space Learning as payment for blog posts and my participation in filming their primary Maths CPD.

Special Offer on Third Space Learning’s 1-to-1 Maths SATs Booster

I’ve already booked pupils in for the 1-to-1 tuition next term.  If you want to find out how the programme could work in your school, book a demo here  or call their school team on 020 3771 0095.

Third Space have told me they will be happy to offer any school mentioning this blog-post a discount on their KS2 Maths SATs Booster  which starts in January.


Online 1-to-1 lessons: a review of Third Space Learning

The 3D curriculum that promotes remembering

In my previous blog I explained about how memory works, and how teachers can use strategies from cognitive science such as retrieval practice to promote long term learning. After all, the learned curriculum is the only curriculum that actually counts in the end.

The curriculum is the means by which we ensure that all our children get their fair share of the rich cultural inheritance our world affords.  A good curriculum empowers children with the knowledge they are entitled to: knowledge that will nourish both them and the society of which they are members. Because, as Angela Rayner, Labour shadow education secretary says, knowledge belongs to the many, not the few.

But if children don’t remember what we have taught them, then even the richest curriculum is pointless. Knowledge can’t empower if it is forgotten. So as well as thinking about what is the richest, best material to put into our curriculum, we also have to structure our curriculum in a way that make remembering almost inevitable. This blog relies very heavily on the thinking of Christine Counsell, so much so I did ask her if it was alright to use her ideas about building a memorable curriculum. She was much more concerned that the ideas got ‘out there’ than to claim ownership of them, but much of what follows is a result of her sharing her vision of a memorable, knowledge rich curriculum with me. The actual examples from different year groups come from me, so if you find the specifics lacking, that’s my fault, not hers.

Schools tend to spend a lot of time thinking about how children are going to learn, rather than what. Then when schools start to think about what they want children to learn – when they start to think hard about their curriculum – they overlook planning systematically how they can build their curriculum so that children remember it.

When I first started teaching there was no National Curriculum, or SATS and no Ofsted.  Schools were completely free to teach whatever they liked. Indeed, it was often down to the individual teacher to choose what they wanted to teach. My mother was a primary teacher and her colleague said she didn’t like maths so didn’t teach it. That’s pretty extreme. But it really was more or less up to you. The school I started in was more prescriptive than most – we had maths scheme and a reading scheme which means it was ultra-traditional for its time, but I was still asked what I wanted to teach for my first ‘topic’. Your topic drove the curriculum. The idea was that under the umbrella theme, you tried to find bits of learning from each subject that linked with it. So, for example, I decided for my first topic that I would do ‘the weather’ – actually quite a good topic, as it goes.  So we made rain gauges and wind socks and measured rainfall, wind direction and temperature, we learnt about wind speeds and the Beaufort scale in a geography/science combo.  We made mobiles with the symbols from weather forecasts. (I think that was art but it might have been DT). We wrote stories about storms. We played percussion instruments to make a storm. RE? well Noah’s Ark, obviously. We didn’t do any history that term. Not in a deliberately planned way, but just because it didn’t fit. Well I suppose I could have done the history of umbrellas or something.

This approach hasn’t completely died out either. Not long ago, some poor year 6 teacher on Twitter asked for help in planning what to teach in history that term to fit with her topic. Her topic was roller coasters. A topic chosen not by her but by some senior manager who decided that since going on a roller coaster was fun, learning about them would be too.

Actually planning a topic like this was quite fun and the best teachers were really inventive and taught good stuff. The rationale behind this approach was that by linking stuff together, it would be more interesting and hence more memorable than teaching a series of atomised, unrelated subjects. Strong links between the subjects was its raison d’etre. The problem was that it was just so arbitrary.  It was quite possible for children to do the same topic twice (or even three times) because it was just down to the individual teacher. Whole subjects could be left untaught for term after term after term, just because they didn’t ‘fit’ with the topic, and not because a strategic decision had been made to concentrate on something else. Or, in a desperate attempt to shoehorn a subject into a topic, tenuous links were made. I once joked that my topic that term was ‘tenuous links across the curriculum’. I was chatting to Christine Counsell the other day about this and she told me about a teacher who was doing a topic on colours. Desperate to fit in some history, the teacher plumped for teaching them about the Black Death!

But actually, this emphasis on links wasn’t completely misguided. If we want to build a curriculum that promotes remembering, we will absolutely need to build links in. In fact, we will need to build in those links in a far more systematic and structural way than the ‘topic web’ approach ever imagined. The very bones of our curriculum across the years and across subjects will need to link up in a highly well thought out way, so that knowledge taught in one subject is explicitly reinforced and revisited in a not only in other subjects, but in subsequent years. In this way, key concepts and vocabulary are reinforced because new words and concepts are encountered repeatedly in meaningful contexts. I am calling this way of building a curriculum a 3D curriculum, for reasons which I hope will become obvious.

First of all, vertical links should be deliberated constructed within a subject so that over the years, key ‘high yield’ concepts are encountered again and again. Not only are these concepts practised again and again through retrieval practice while the unit of work is being taught, the curriculum design provides planned opportunities to revisit the concept in subsequent years.

So, for example, let us consider the word ‘tyrant’ and its associates ‘tyranny’ and ‘tyrannical’ in the context of teaching history.

We first meet a ‘tyrant’ in year 1, when our students encounter King John (of Magna Carta fame) and learn that he was (until the barons got him) a tyrant. We don’t meet any tyrants in history again until in year 5 when we encounter Dionysius of Syracuse (the definitive tyrant) where his tyranny is counterpoised with the democracy of Ancient Greek city states.  While its quite a stretch to expect that children will remember the word ‘tyrant’ from 4 years previously, it provides an opportunity to remind students about the Magna Carta and how power is limited in Britain. Then in year 6, we can compare Hitler with Churchill. By now, we also know the adjective ‘tyrannical.’

Alongside this, we need to develop horizontal links between subjects in a year. These are the sort of links we loved back in the old days of topic webs.  In year 3 students learn about rivers in geography and the importance of the river Nile when learning about the history of Ancient Egypt.  In year 4 we learn that Vikings invade England, microbes invade bodies and about invasion games in PE.

Important grammar concepts, such as nominalisation – so important for academic writing – are also addressed when children write a non-chronological report or an explanation about something they have learnt in another subject. For example, children are taught that rather than writing that the Nazi’s invaded Poland we teach it is more effective to write about the invasion. Instead of saying the French were defeated we write about the defeat of the French and later about the opposition and resistance of the French.

Finally, we need to map out the diagonal links. That is to say, links that join concepts across both year groups and across subjects. So when in year 3 children learn in RE the story of the Exodus and encounter the brutality of Pharaoh they are reminded that he is behaving like a tyrant – a term they learnt in history in year 1!  To give another example, the word ‘source’ is the place where a river begins when studying the River Nile in year 3, but is also the person or book that provides information for a news story or for historical research when we discuss primary and secondary sources in later years. In English in year 6, students revisit our beloved word ‘tyranny’ when they encounter the Warden in ‘Holes’ and her tyrannical regime. A later study of the biography of Harriet Tubman affords the opportunity to describe slavery as being a form of tyranny, but of one group of people who ‘rule’ over another.

Each time a concept is encountered within a different context, not only is the concept more likely to be remembered, the understanding of that concept becomes more nuanced.

What is really important is that this revisiting is done in a deliberate, planned way and not as an inconsequential aside along the lines of ‘remember when you learnt about plants’ without explicitly reminding the students exactly what it is about plants that you want them to link with what they are learning now. So for example, explicitly revisiting the different types of plants that grow in different biomes when learning about adaptation. References to previously studied content need to build on or develop previous learning, as well as strengthening students’ ability to remember the terms. None of this should be ad hoc. These links form the bones of the curriculum. That’s why we can talk of the curriculum as the progression model.

I’m not saying building such a curriculum is easy. Primary school teachers are not used to knowing what children have learnt in foundation subjects in previous year groups, let alone which key concepts might provide fruitful opportunities for development. In other words, which key concepts really are ‘key’.  Indeed, in my experience, most primary schools are only just beginning to map out the kind of knowledge they think children should be learning, let alone thinking about the route map of key concepts within and across years and subjects.

Yet imagine the incredible head start our children would have if they arrived at secondary school will a sophisticated understanding, grounded in different contexts of the following concepts that I’ve lifted from our knowledge organisers: I’ve tried to give the word in its nominalised form where possible but obviously we need to make sure they know the other words in the ‘family’ too.

(Primarily from history) Ruler, king, monarch, monarchy, reign, democracy, election, tyranny, dictator, opposition, resistance, rebellion, invasion, conquest, triumph, parliament, government, tribe, emperor, empire, defeat, occupation, exploration, taxation, civilisation, citizen, culture, state, military, conflict, alliance, treaty, coalition, surrender, warrior, poverty, flee, exile, hostility, community, migration, persecution, oppression, liberation, neutral, eye-witness, source, archaeologist, expedition, navigation, exploration

(Primarily from RE) Creation, gratitude, compassion, victim, sacrifice, sacred, holy, pagan, monotheism, polytheism, immortal, salvation, forgiveness, sin, incarnation, reincarnation, prophet, liberation, obedience, commandment, prayer, worship, wisdom, commitment, faith, belief,

(Primarily from geography) Climate, weather, temperature, erosion, fertile, irrigation, meander, crop, trade, settlement, environment, abundance, scarcity, resources, habitat, adaptation, population, predator, prey, immigration

(Primarily for science) Flammable, conductor, insulator, dissolving, soluble, solvent, evaporation, condensation, pitch, volume, circuit, particle, reversible, irreversible, extinct, orbit, reflection, reproduction, sexual, asexual, friction.

This list is self-evidently far too long. We are only at the beginnings of building our 3D curriculum.

I gave a talk partly based on this blog at the conference at Reach Academy last Monday and someone asked me the very sensible question, am I talking about Isabel Beck’s tier two words? In case you haven’t read her work (and you really should, it’s all about vocabulary), Beck divides words into 3 categories; tier 1 are everyday words like table, cup, house; tier 3 words are technical, subject specific words such as photosynthesis or glacier; tier 2 are where we find words that provide a more precise or mature ways of referring to ideas they already know about. For example, knowing the word benevolent as well as kind or fortunate as well as lucky. See here for more. Tier 2 words are the words teachers should really concentrate on, argues Beck, because they lend a sophistication and maturity to communication that many child may not encounter at home and hence need explicit instruction.

While I agree with this, I think the key concepts we need to build a 3D curriculum from a set I’m going to call tier 2.5!  I’m still reflecting on this but I think the key concepts we need are ones that although often grounded in a specific subject domain (so tier 3) are also used in a metaphorical or looser way outside that domain (so tier 2 possibly?) For example, meander has a very specific – in fact tier 3 – usage in geography yet is useful word to use to describe thoughts or route through shopping malls. It’s probably not quite rich enough to from part of the endoskeleton of our curriculum, though ideally all our teachers will know that in year 3, children learn about meanders so that should the occasion occur where meander would be a useful verb, they will explicit reference river bends in their explanation.

Looking at my long list, it seems that the humanities afford more words able to be co-opted for use in other domains, whereas science vocabulary is more likely to be hyper-specific and domain bound. I also note that most of my history words tend to be about power and a fair few geography words about economics. I’m not sure if that’s by lefty bias coming into play or not? But since power and money are such powerful drivers, it is no wonder that words which formally mean one thing in once context – empire, for example – are pressed into service to describe more the commonplace human interactions of the power crazy. English teachers, I presume, would look on that long list of words first encountered in history lessons and be delighted to think that children would come to English lessons already with an understanding, albeit in a very specific context, of the word; an understanding is exploited when authors use words figuratively.  This is much less likely to happen with scientific words such as isotope. There are however still links to be made: coalition/coalesce for example.

Much of the detail of this approach is still tentative. I welcome comments.

The 3D curriculum that promotes remembering

Memory not memories – teaching for long term learning

It seems like a life time ago but this time last week I should have been at ResearchEd, listening to great speakers and getting butterflies about my session later that day. Except that I slipped on the hardboard down on the kitchen floor courtesy of our kitchen refit and ended up in A&E instead.  Luckily nothing is  broken and my leg is slowly getting better. I’m so sorry I couldn’t be there.

A few people asked if I could put my slides up. The problem was I had taken Oliver Caviglioli’s work on dual coding  very much to heart and knew that written text and spoken text delivered together can overwhelm the working memory whereas the brain deals much better with spoken text alongside images. My slides where therefore 99% word-free but  image rich, the intention being that I would explain the slides verbally without recourse slides full of bullet points. What I was going to say was in my head rather than written down. The trouble being that without some sort of narration, the slides are hard to make sense of.  So what follows is a a blog based on what I would have said, though probably a bit longer than the 40 minute slot would have afforded.  I’ve used many of Oliver’s excellent graphics in my slides.

Does the best learning result from memorable experiences?

Children tend to easily remember exciting things such as plays and trips.  This leads some teachers to suggest that the key to getting children to remember things is to make lessons full of exciting, memorable experiences. While not an unreasonable supposition, it is based on a misconception about how remembering works. The misconception arises because most teachers are unaware of  the difference between semantic and episodic memory.

semantic episodic slide

Episodic memory is where we store the ‘episodes’ of our life, the narrative of our days. This is the autobiographical part of our memory that remembers the times, places and emotions that occur during events and experiences.  We don’t have to work hard  or particularly  concentrate to acquire episodic memories, they just happen whether we like it or not. When we talk about having fond memories or an event being memorable, we are talking about episodic memory. We are talking about something that happened, something where details of time, place and how we felt at the time are central.

Semantic memory  is where we store information, facts, concepts.  These are stored ‘context-free’, that is, without the  emotional and spatial/temporal context in which they were first acquired.  These type of memories take effort, we have to work to make them happen. In fact, we don’t tend to use the word ‘memories’ for this kind of stuff, we tend to use the word ‘memorise’. After all, we don’t say ‘I have memories of the 7 x table’ we say ‘I have memorised the 7 x table.’

Episodic memory is, at first glance, the more ‘human’ of the two, the memory of people, feelings and places that makes us who we are. Semantic memory seems colder, more robotic.  More Mr Spock than Dr McCoy.  Yet it is our amazing ability to store culturally acquired learning in our semantic memory that makes as so successful as a species.  The key purpose of education is to build strong semantic memory, to pass on the knowledge built up over centuries to the next generation; how to read and write, how stories work, how to use mathematical reasoning to solve problems, science with its amazing power to gives us to predict the future and the myriad of other concepts, ideas and practices. That is not to say that building semantic memory is the only purpose of education. We want to help form children who are emotionally literate and morally responsible too, and that will involve thinking about the kind of episodic memories we try and build for our children. If we treat our children with kindness and respect, they will have episodic memories of  what it was like to be treated kindly and respectfully, which makes it more likely they too will treat others with kindness and respect themselves.  Nor is it to say that there should be no consideration of creating the kind of memorable experiences that trips and plays and so forth afford.  Such special events that punctuate the day to day routine of school life are the festivals, the ‘Christmas dinner’ of the school year. They are special because they are infrequent and resource-heavy and different.  They contrast with the every day, bread and butter hum drum familiarity of ordinary school life. But the every day is our core purpose.

Episodic memories may be acquired effortlessly, but they come with several drawbacks in terms of acquiring skills and knowledge.

tagged with context

Episodic memories come tagged with context. In the episodic memory, the sensory data – what a child saw, heard and possibly smelt during a lesson – alongside their emotions, become part of the learning. These emotional and sensory cues are triggered when we try and retrieve an episodic memory. The problem being that sometimes they remember the contextual tags but not the actual learning.

when they remember the lesson but

I’m sure we’ve all had those lessons when children remember all about the colour pens they were using or that we used post its or that Miss spilled her coffee but that actual content of the lesson itself? That’s gone!

remove the context

Episodic memory is so tied up with context it is no good for remembering things once that context is no longer present. Luckily our brains also have semantic memory. Semantic memories have been liberated from the emotional and spatial/temporal context in which they were first acquired. And once a concept has been stored in the semantic memory, then it is more flexible and transferable between different contexts.

Think about your own learning at school. To be sure you will have some episodic memories of what you actually learnt, but for the most part, the episodic context-dependent aspects have long since faded.  What endures  is semantic memory that you won’t remember  actually learning because the ‘memorable’ context has long been forgotten, episodic brass traded for semantic gold. In this list below, see if you actually recall learning any of this stuff.  Probably not, yet you know it (or most of it) and though maybe you have not thought about ox bow lakes  for decades, at the very mention, back the memory comes, effortlessly.  That’s the beauty of semantic memory . It isn’t, and doesn’t need to be, tied up with episodic clutter. We don’t need to have fond memories of sitting on the carpet in Reception whilst Mrs Blackburn told us all about triangles to know about triangles.

do you remember when

Semantic memory is context free.

semantic context free

Because they are context free, semantic memories are much more flexible and transferable than episodic memories.

flexible and transferable

So they are much more useful.  Semantic memory is what we use when we are problem solving or being creative because both of these involve applying something learnt in one context to another, novel context. Episodic memories by contrast aren’t flexible and don’t easily transfer because they are anchored in specifics.

developing memory soundbite

Since enabling problem solving and creativity is the ultimate goal of education, it is crucial that teachers have very good understanding of how to ensure that what we teach them stays learnt, that what we impart makes that all important journey from the episodic to the semantic memory. Yet few teachers have had any training on this. What is more, once you start to understand the learning journey, you realise that much of what schools focus on only addresses half (if that) of the learning journey. Our teaching and learning policies and the centrality of lesson observations as levers for school improvement tend to focus on individual lessons, whereas if we know about how semantic memories are formed, we will realise that a lesson is the wrong unit of time  as Bodil Iskasen wrote. (The link to her seminal blog on this does not seem to be working so I’ve linked to David Didau writing about her idea.)

To understand this, we need to understand about how we come to remember stuff. I’ve written about this here and the following slides also remind us of the process. If you are already all Willingham-ed up, you might want to skip this bit.

memory simple diagram

When we teach something, the information goes first into the working memory and then, in the right conditions, it passes into the long term memory.  Once here, memories can be retrieved back into the short term  memory when we want to think about that particular thing. Hence, although I  have not thought about ox bow lakes very much for 30 years,  I can remember what they are, after all this time. However, as we all are only too aware, the process does not happen quite as straightforwardly as we would like. We teach stuff, yet our students seems to undergo a mysterious mind wipe, sometimes within hours.  Stuff gets forgotten.

stuff gets forgotten

Our teaching and learning policies, our cpd and our lesson observations are all focused on the initial learning part of this journey. They pay no heed at all to the second leg; the bit where we remember, or don’t remember stuff beyond the narrow confines of a single lesson.  So sometimes we are baffled when seemingly great teachers get not so great results.  Or possibly vice versa. that’s because we’ve only looked at part of what it takes to learn something in the long term.  We’ve only looked at this.

t and l only

Or maybe even just this

just this

In other words, we’ve neglected the part of the journey that happens subsequent to the information arriving in the working memory, the stuff that makes knowledge actually stick around long term – an egregious oversight with all too familiar consequences.

hello hello.PNG

Whereas we should also focus on this.

augmenting remembering

Since lesson observation only focuses on the here and now of a lesson at the point of delivery, it is of limited use in helping see if learning is actually happening. Learning is a long-term process, yet we try and ‘see’ the unseeable by looking at proxies, all of which tell us very little about whether learning is beginning to happen or not, as Robert Coe explains here.

Teaching for long-term learning

If we want to maximise long-term learning, we need to be aware of the three pressure points where our learning may go awry. Traditionally, we have focused on the first of these points and not paid any attention to points two or three.

traps on journey

The  working memory is has very limited capacity and is easily overwhelmed. By contrast, the capacity of the long term memory is vast.  If we want children to remember stuff for the long term, we need to make the most of this huge capacity. The aim of all learning should be to improve long term learning.

wm ltm balance.PNG

effectivr instruction is

The first hurdle, the one we are most familiar with already, is to make sure that what we teach actually makes it to the working memory in the first place.

trap 1.PNG

We remember what we think about, so lessons need to be planned so children think about the right things. If they are thinking hard about what colour pen to use in their poster or how they might win a game, rather than what the poster is about or the maths behind the game, then that’s what they will remember.

residue of thought

This can be a danger with exciting ‘memorable’ lessons. The exciting but extraneous features are what get remembered, rather than the more prosaic, but more important information that we want them to learn.

For example, when teaching young children to count, sometimes using ‘interesting’ objects means the child’s focus is more on the dinosaurs than the counting. So that’s what gets remembered.


Of course the converse is also true. If a lesson is so tedious that all anyone can think about is how boring it is, then that will be what is remembered, at the expense of content.


The second hurdle to be cleared is making sure that the information in the working memory makes it to the long term memory, without leaking out. As Peps McCrea writes in ‘Memorable Teaching’

Our WM is a high maintenance mechanism. Give it too little to play with and it begins to look for more interesting fodder. Give it to much to juggle and it’ll drop all the balls.’

 This is the basis of Sweller’s Cognitive Load Theory.

cog load

Cognitive overload occurs when we overwhelm the limited working memory with too much new information at once. Since most of us can only handle about 4 new items of information at once, stuff will start to leak if we try and put too much in at once.

four slots.PNG

cog load pics

We can avoid cognitive load by breaking stuff down into small steps. Unfortunately the ‘curse of knowledge’ makes us forget quite how complicated certain concepts are. See this series of excellent blogs by Kristopher Boulton where he explores breaking down the concept of simultaneous equations into tiny steps to make sure no-one gets lost along the way.

small steps.PNG

Fortunately, we can ‘hack’ the limits of our working memory. Our brains like to connect together related ideas into chunks. The great news about this our working memory then regards the big ‘chunk’ as one item, occupying one slot.


So for example, when children begin to learn to read, each individual letter had to be decoded, so reading is slow and hard work. If the text is too demanding, the child cannot attend to  the meaning of the text at the same time. Later, the child can decode more fluently because through practice, phoneme-grapheme correspondences have formed a great big chunk called ‘reading’ and getting words of the page takes up very little working memory. The child’s working memory is now fully available to think about what they are reading, rather than thinking about what the words say.  Having secure recall of number bonds and times tables helps students in a similar way have the brain space to think about the new maths they are learning. How many times have children failed to understand vertical addition, for example, because so much brain power is going into adding two 1-digit numbers together that all that stuff about columns and place value you are trying to impart falls by the wayside. When students go to secondary school and learn about the Norman Conquest, they will do so much more easily if the concept of invasion already has some flesh on its bones because they already know about Viking and Roman invasions and World War 2.  Invasion, resistance, conquest and defeat will already be chunked together and understood.

chunking diag

Having a rich store of knowledge available in one’s long term memory ready to be drawn upon by the working memory is therefore crucial.

chunk expain.PNG

This is why having lots of rich knowledge is so important. The limitations of the working memory can be bypassed by using the resources of the long term memory.  Those with limited knowledge are unable to do this, so are much more likely to experience cognitive overload.


This has big implications for our curriculum design.  If we want successful learners, instead of over focusing on the quality of teaching, we need to pay attention to the quality of what gets taught.  Is it suitably knowledge-rich?  If instead we focus too much on giving children fun-filled ‘memorable’ experiences, we are depriving them the vital ‘nutrients’ they will need later. It’s equivalent to feeding children on happy meals rather than balanced, nutritious meals. That’s not to say children should never have ‘fun lessons’  at school, anymore than children should never eat junk food or birthday cakes or sweets.

The third and final hurdle is all about retrieval.  Knowledge might have got into to our long term memory, but how easily can we find it?

trap 3

You know that exasperating feeling when you know you know something but you just can’t remember it right now?  Or you remember (episodically) that you did know something, but can’t bring that thing to mind when you need it.  That’s a bit like when you’ve saved something on the staff drive but didn’t name it properly, let alone put it in a folder where you might stand the faintest chance of relocating it again. Not that that sort of things happens at St Matthias. Oh deary me no.


Let’s hope ‘Doc 6’ wasn’t anything important.

Fortunately, we can do something about this. (About long-term learning that is. The staff drive is beyond help, I fear). We can strengthen our ability to recall long-term memories by retrieving them.  The more you search for a memory, the easier it becomes to find it. This simple concept – the retrieval effect’ – should become the bedrock of our teaching for long term learning.


Unfortunately this effect is also known as the ‘testing effect’ which puts some teachers off and confuses others – myself included until recently – so that we see this as an assessment tool. It is not an assessment tool, it is a learning tool.  I fear my previous blogs on knowledge organisers might have reinforced that misunderstanding. You might get some assessment data as a by product from some retrieval practice but that is not its prime purpose. Its prime purpose is to make memories stronger.

testing effect

not a test.PNG

When we struggle to remember something, this primes our brain to remember it more easily the next time we look. The brain gets the message that this memory must be important because we are looking for it.  The more times we try and retrieve something, the stronger the memory gets. But it is the struggle that is important.  If we reteach content instead of getting children to try and retrieve stuff they’ve probably forgotten, the memory does not get strengthened in the same way. It seems kinder but actually does the children no favours. We need to explain this to them and help them understand that struggling to remember something is good – it means their memory is getting stronger.


dont reteach.PNG

Some children will fail in their attempt at retrieval. That’s fine. Once they’ve struggled, then you reteach.

after concerted effort.PNG

One way of helping deal emotionally with the stress of not knowing something is by calling retrieval a game of hide and seek. That pesky knowledge is trying to hide from you, but you are going to try really hard to track it down.

hide and seek.PNG

And this is what you can say to children who can’t remember!

good at hiding.PNG

And then reteach, to help them get better at finding, next time.

The retrieval effect is stronger if we allow a bit of forgetting to happen before getting children to retrieve. Using our hide and seek analogy, if you only count to 5 before you go and ‘seek’, your friends will be pretty easy to find but your ‘seeking skills’ won’t have had much of a work out.  Count to 50 and your friends will be well hidden and you will have to work hard to find them. It’s the same with memory.  Our memories get stronger once retrieved if we have had time to forget them – bizarre as that sounds.

This is one limitation of  some AfL techniques. If we assess whether children can remember something at the end of a lesson before they have had a chance to forget it then while we get get useful feedback about if they understand something or not – and I’m not knocking that – obviously that’s very important to know – what exit tickets, plenaries and the like can’t tell us is if this new learning will be remembered long term (or even tomorrow).  Afl techniques can tell us about what has been understood, but to know what has been remembered we need something different, we need assessment for long term learning.

allow forgetting.PNG

Having retrieval tasks at the start of lessons, be they ‘do now’ tasks, entry tickets, start of lesson plenaries or any other retrieval tasks are more likely to strengthen the learning from the previous lesson than and end of lesson retrieval task.

What is more, to make memories really strong, come back to them at gradually increasing intervals. This is known as ‘spaced learning.’


spaced learning

At St Matthias, one way we do this is by giving children multiple choice quizzes weekly during a 3 week block (in humanities or science) and then by giving them another quiz about 6 weeks later when they are deep in the middle of a completely different block. And then at the end of the year (after a period of revision time when they can self-quiz using their knowledge organisers), giving them a final quiz that covers all the areas of learning  in that subject that year. This final end of year quiz does have an assessment purpose too,  but it will also provide further retrieval practice and help the knowledge learned that year endure in the long term.

ko ww2.PNG

Here’s a year 6 example

ko yr 2.PNG

And here’s one from year 2.

Another way of maximising the benefit of retrieval practice is by mixing up the content of what you are asking children to retrieve.  For example, giving children a fractions question from a unit you did a month ago in the middle of a unit on perimeter.


I stress, this is the pattern for  retrieval practice,  and not for the initial teaching of concepts.

We use ‘check its’, an idea we got from the Primary Advantage Federation.  These are short questions from an area that has been taught at least three weeks previously, without any reteaching of the concept beforehand.  For example:

check it reading.PNG

check it maths.PNG

Again, while you could see these as primarily being about assessing what has been retained, we should also remember that as well as helping check what might need reteaching, it also strengthens the memory of what has previously been learned.


Time spent retrieving previous learning is self evidently time not spent learning new stuff. But ploughing ahead with the new without devoting quality time to remembering the old is a false economy. The curriculum is not so much stuff to be covered, it is knowledge for long haul learning. It will pay off in the long term, with less frantic time as high stakes statutory tests approach.  And anyway, the pay off should be for the learner who now has a rich store of knowledge in their long term memory rather than for schools grasping after the badges and stickers of high exam honours, as Amanda Spielman reminds us.

Memory not memories – teaching for long term learning

Education and Stockholm Syndrome: the road to recovery

In 1973, 4 bank employees in Stockholm were taken hostage and held by their captors for 6 days. Yet when they were released, not one of them would testify against their captors; on the contrary, they raised money for their defense.

In June of this year, at the Festival of Education, Amanda Spielman released the English educational establishment from its captivity to a narrowly data-driven paradigm of educational excellence. Yet so strongly has this paradigm held us in its grasp for so many years, it is hard to let it go.  More than that, it is difficult to appreciate quite how perniciously this paradigm has permeated into our psyches, so that we find it difficult to detect just how far its corrupting influence distorts what we do. We suffer from a data-induced myopia. There are a myriad of possibilities we cannot ‘see’ because our focus is firmly fixed elsewhere. Our sense of what ‘good’ looks like has been so warped, we flounder when challenged to concentrate ‘on the curriculum and the substance of education, not preparing your pupils to jump through a series of accountability hoops.’ Surely ‘good’ looks like good results? Take away this guiding light and we are all at sea. You mean, my good results aren’t enough anymore? You mean I can have good results and still be bad? Those wicked jailers have taken away our security blanket; no wonder we want it back!

The penny is slowly beginning to drop. Now we don’t know what ‘bad’ looks like. Before, as long as we cleared those hoops, we were ok. If we cleared them in spectacular style, we might even be double ok with a cherry on the top. But unless we did something really horrific like having out of date plasters or the wrong type of fencing, we could be pretty sure we weren’t actually bad, as long as our results held up. Until now.

Of course we’ve always said there’s too narrow a focus on data and there’s more to education than English and maths and what about the arts and personal development and so on and so forth.  But when our jailers not only agree with us but blow up the jail, without this familiar reference point we find it hard to negotiate the landscape.  We keep looking back to where the jail once was to orientate ourselves.

In May, a month before Amanda’s talk, we held a governor away day to think about our ‘vision’. It was a good day. We spent much more time looking at our values than our results and ended up with our vision statement, which at the time I was really please with. It went like this:

Our Vision 

‘Learning to live life in all its fullness’ 

  1. Maintain and improve pupil progress and achievement within a responsibly balanced budget.
  2. Reduce educational inequality through maximising progress for all.
  3. Encouraging personal development in line with the school’s values.
  4. Working in collaboration and not competition with local schools for the good of all our pupils: ‘all pupils are our pupils’.

But now, when I look through it with Spielman-spectacles, is see how prison bound it is.  3) and 4) are ok, it’s 1) and 2) I have the problem with. Let’s look at 1).   (Forget the bit about the budget, that’s just an acknowledgement of the challenge of maintaining provision in the face of a drastically reduced budget)

Maintain and improve pupil progress and achievement.

We all know what this is code for. What it really means is ‘get good Sats results’ in English and maths. Now I’m not saying that Amanda thinks for one moment that getting good results isn’t important, of course it is. But we’ve forgotten that these results are an imperfect proxy for being suitably literate and numerate rather than an end in themselves. This is compounded by 2)

Reduce educational inequality through maximising progress for all

This is code for ‘make sure pupil premium children get good results too.’

Which is a worthy aim, as far as it goes, but it’s all just a bit reductionist.   Amanda’s speech, on the other hand, shared a vision of education ‘broadening minds, enriching communities and advancing civilization.’ Now getting good Sats results will contribute to that to a certain degree; let’s not understate the case. Minds are not going to be broadened very much unless children can read and write well and are confident in their use of maths.  There are many things that might enrich a community and advance civilization, but most of them are greatly helped by agents who are literate and numerate.

It’s the fixation on measuring things (implicit here) that’s the problem. To an outsider, ‘progress’ and ‘achievement’ sound like perfectly good things to aim for. But we all know that progress ain’t progress as the lay person might understand it. It’s Progress™, something quantifiable, something on a spreadsheet, something with the illusion of tangibility.  Our vision statements may be vague and aspiration, but that’s ok because pretty soon they will be translated into smart targets with numbers and everything. But, as the saying goes, measure what you value because you will value what we measure.  Our jailers measured us relentlessly and soon we valued their measurements above all things. We may have denied this with our words but our actions spoke louder.

Of course we want to broaden minds, enrich communities and advance civilisation. That’s a dream job description!  But mark my words, before long someone will invent a ‘broadened mind’ rubric so we can report how many microGoves of Progress™ we have made in the mind broadening business.

Grade Descriptor
9 A superlatively broad mind. Sublime community enrichment. Establishment of heaven on earth.
8 An extremely broad mind. Excellent community enrichment. Rapid advancement of civilisation.
7 An impressively broad mind. Impressive community enrichment. Notable advancement of civilisation.
6 A broad mind. Community enriched. Civilisation advancing.
5 A mainly broad mind with occasional narrowness. Community showing fledgling signs of enrichment. Civilisation inching forwards.
4 Some narrowness with outbreaks of broadening. Community just about managing, civilisation in two minds whether to go forwards of backwards
3 Quite a narrow mind, community a bit impoverished, civilisation retreating slowly
2 A narrow mind, community impoverished, civilisation in retreat
1 A very narrow mind, community very impoverished, civilisation put to rout.

(With thanks to Alex Ford for the inspiration and this great blog, written about those who, like Hiroo Onoda, are behind with the news)

A few people have asking me recently about curriculum development and wanting to know more about our attempts to create a knowledge rich curriculum that builds cultural capital. A question that sometimes comes up is, ‘Why are you doing this? How is it contributing to rising standards?’ ‘Standards’ of course being another code word for ‘great Sats results in English and maths.  As if everything has to be justified – especially major initiatives – in terms of the payback in test results. Cos that’s what the prison guards used to fixate on, so that’s what we find it hard to think beyond.

But surely, I hear you saying, a broad, knowledge-rich curriculum will result in higher standards across the board. Why, I said this myself here.  I argued that because inference depends on broad general knowledge ‘cutting back on foundation subjects to improve reading is a false economy.’   This is true, of course, of improving reading in a qualitative sense. However, while knowledge is essential for the comprehending of reading, the kind of knowledge gaps that thwart children in the Sats Reading Comprehension tend to be about why cats appear well looked after because they have shiny coats – not the sort of stuff you study in history and geography or science for that matter. The idea that curriculum time and financial and human resources might be poured into something that might not make that much impact on our data, on Standards,  is one that is going to take some time for schools to get their head around. It seems reckless, profligate when looked at from a prison perspective.

Although if we dare lift our eyes above the accountability horizon and contemplate the impact of a broad, knowledge-rich curriculum on the longer term achievement of our pupils at secondary school and beyond, we will see that we have given them the intellectual nourishment they need to thrive. We need to think hard about what words like ‘standards’ and ‘achievement’ and ‘progress’ might mean, when liberated from data-jail. Maybe it looks like broadening minds, enriching communities and advancing civilization?

Education and Stockholm Syndrome: the road to recovery