Curriculum planning: ks1 geography

Having not written a blog for 7 months, I am now posting a guest blog! But it’s really great and should be really useful for those of you thinking about revamping your geography curriculum. This piece has been written by Victoria Morris (@MrsSTeaches) who works at St Matthias School in Bethnal Green, Tower Hamlets, where I was headteacher until recently.  The process we went through to plan out curriculum started with me sharing the principles with the staff team (see this). Teachers then planned the geography curriculum for their year group. After that, Victoria checked it and revised it so that all aspects of the geography National Curriculum were taught and links between topics were really clear. We then shared the final version during an INSET day. Although if we had had this blog before we started the whole process, that would have saved us an awful lot of time. So don’t do what we did! Involving class teachers is good, but get them to use Victoria’s guidance from the start.

The blog that follows is not the curriculum as such but guidance to help you plan your own. It assumes you will be following the English National Curriculum, though I reckon it is still useful if you are an academy in England or in  a school outside England as though you don’t have to follow the NC, it will still give you some pointers so whatever you choose to cover is at least as comprehensive. Victoria has build on the great work the teaching team did and made it even better, by her painstakingly methodical work and because she also taught herself an awful lot of geography along the way!

We should also acknowledge the support  and guidance we got from Andrew Percival (@primarypercival) and the staff at Stanley Road Primary in Oldham and Jon Hutchinson  (@jon_hutchinson) from Reach Academy Feltham and Mark Enser (@EnserMark) with designing our curriculum.  Though this piece is all down to the wonderful and very talented Victoria.

Ks2 geography guidance will be posted next week and then history the week after that.

Guide to the Primary Geography Curriculum: Key Stage 1

by Victoria Morris

I’ve been lucky enough to spend the first half of this year reviewing our geography and history curriculum, and writing the scheme of work that details the knowledge to be taught in each unit. As part of this process I’ve done a lot of research and reading on the subject content, and greatly improved my subject knowledge, particularly in geography. While doing so, I’ve thought a lot about what the ideal curriculum would look like – what would be the best way of systematically developing children’s knowledge and skills so that they master the KS2 objectives by the time they leave in Year 6? I’ve written some of my thoughts into these subject guides in the hope that they may help other teachers who are in the process of reviewing their curriculum.’

The guide is written on the understanding that your school is teaching the English National Curriculum 2014, and is mainly concerned with how to select content that will ensure you cover the National Curriculum content across each key stage, as well as suggestions as to how the objectives can be grouped and sequenced in order to create a coherent, logically sequenced curriculum. What are you teaching, when, and why?

As the objectives in the Key Stage 1 geography curriculum are mainly fixed and explicit about what children should know and be able to do, the choices that need to be made are mainly regarding the order in which the objectives will be taught, how far they should be broken down into smaller steps, and how many times they should be revisited across the key stage in order to ensure that children remember what they have been taught. (One of the criteria relating to Impact under Quality of Education in the 2019 Education Inspection Framework is that “over the course of study, teaching is designed to help learners to remember in the long term the content they have been taught and to integrate new knowledge into larger concepts.”)

Small area studies

However, there is one objective which requires decisions to be made before you can create a definitive list of the geography that you will be teaching in Key Stage 1:

  • understand geographical similarities and differences through studying the human and physical geography of a small area of the United Kingdom, and of a small area in a contrasting non-European country

First, what will your small area of the UK be? It would seem to make sense to combine this study with the following objective:

  • use simple fieldwork and observational skills to study the geography of their school and its grounds and the key human and physical features of its surrounding environment

In that case, the small area of the UK would be the local area of your school.

Alternatively, you could separate these two objectives, choosing a contrasting area of the UK to study in addition to the surrounding environment of your school. This would be particularly important if your pupils have limited experience of different environments – if your school is in a city, studying a rural or coastal area would be an important addition to your children’s cultural capital.

Secondly, which contrasting non-European country will you choose? There are several possible bases for making this decision:

  1. A location that reflects the background of a significant proportion of the school population or a significant ethnic minority group in the local area. For example, if your school is an inner-city one with a high percentage of Bangladeshi Muslim pupils, studying an agricultural region of Bangladesh could be a good choice.
  2. A location that adds to the pupils’ understanding and appreciation of diversity by providing cultural as well as locational contrast.
  3. A location in a continent that does not feature in Key Stage 2, so choosing it for study in Key Stage 1 will ensure that your pupils have sufficient understanding of a range of countries around the world. I would suggest waiting until you have decided on which locations in Europe and North or South America you will teach in Key Stage 2, as well as the history units you will be teaching. Plot these locations on a world map – is there a continent or country that is not represented, but which you feel it is important for the children in your setting to have experience of?
  4. A location that links to an area of study in a different subject – a history topic or a text that is being used in English. Just be careful that if you make the decision for this reason, the location you select has sufficient learning potential (you’re not sacrificing the geography for the sake of the link).

Whichever reasoning you base your decision on, make sure that you choose an area which includes the physical and human features that are studied in this key stage, since the original objective specifies comparing physical and human geography.

Physical features: beach, cliff, coast, forest, hill, mountain, sea, ocean, river, soil, valley, vegetation, season and weather

Human features: city, town, village, factory, farm, house, office, port, harbour and shop

Suggestions about sequencing

Now you know what needs to be taught, how will you organise this into units of work? What is a logical way in which to sequence these units?

  • identify seasonal and daily weather patterns in the United Kingdom and the location of hot and cold areas of the world in relation to the Equator and the North and South Poles

The first part of this objective (seasonal weather patterns), links to the Year 1 science objectives on seasonal change, which include the requirement to observe and describe weather associated with the seasons, so it would make sense to teach them together. Consider organising this into four short blocks across the year – one for each season at the appropriate time of year – so that children can experience what they are learning about first hand. Remember that there’s a second half to this objective which will need to be slotted in later.

When sequencing the remaining objectives, it would seem to make sense to start with those focused on the UK in Year 1, and gradually widen out to cover the more abstract world locational knowledge in Year 2 (although this sequence is not essential). The following is a suggestion as to how to split the objectives between Year 1 and Year 2:

Year 1 (in no particular order)

  • use simple fieldwork and observational skills to study the geography of their school and its grounds and the key human and physical features of its surrounding environment
  • understand geographical similarities and differences through studying the human and physical geography of a small area of the United Kingdom
  • name and locate the four countries and capital cities of the United Kingdom and its surrounding seas
  • use world maps, atlases and globes to identify the United Kingdom and its countries
  • Identify characteristics of the four countries and capital cities of the United Kingdom

Year 2 (in no particular order)

  • understand geographical similarities and differences through studying the human and physical geography of a small area in a contrasting non-European country
  • name and locate the world’s seven continents and five oceans
  • use world maps, atlases and globes to identify the United Kingdom and its countries, as well as the countries, continents and oceans studied at this key stage
  • identify the location of hot and cold areas of the world in relation to the Equator and the North and South Poles

Of course there are many ways of grouping the objectives into units, which will depend on the location of your school, the backgrounds of your pupils and the history units you choose to teach.  Also, keeping in mind the need for children to regularly revisit and have opportunities for retrieval practice, it will be important to continue to reference and build on knowledge initially taught in Year 1, throughout Year 2. You may also decide to introduce children to the seven continents and five oceans in Year 1, or to split the study of the school and its grounds into two units, with more in depth fieldwork taking place in Year 2 when children have developed a better understanding of measurement and statistics.

Geographical skills and fieldwork

Geographical skills and fieldwork should be included in each unit, with the level of challenge gradually increasing throughout the key stage. As with the locational knowledge objectives, it is vital that prior learning is regularly revisited and built on, so there should be several opportunities throughout both Year 1 and Year 2 for children to practice using compass points to describe locations on maps for example.

When introducing new human and physical features, and new locations, following this routine would be a good way of ensuring that children’s map skills are developed well:

  1. Identify in photographs
  2. Visit in real life if possible
  3. Identify in aerial photographs
  4. Identify on a map (OS map symbols)
  5. Locate on a map of the UK or the world
  6. Describe its location in relation to other places or features studied
  7. Locate in an atlas

This sequence could be gradually developed throughout the key stage, so that by the end of Year 2 children are able to do all of the above confidently.

The unit on seasonal weather patterns provides a good opportunity for developing fieldwork skills by recording temperatures and measuring rainfall. Additionally, the unit of study of the school grounds and the surrounding environment should mainly consist of fieldwork. If you have chosen to study a contrasting area of the UK as well as the school’s local area, additional fieldwork could be carried out on a visit.

Opportunities for retrieval practice

Including an ‘orientation lesson’, which looks at the location of places that are important, using the list of activities above to explore it fully, at the start of each history unit, could be a useful way of providing children with opportunities to revise previous locational knowledge, use their geographical skills, and introduce them to a wider variety of countries.

Additionally, looking carefully at the texts you have chosen to teach from a geographical perspective could provide some useful opportunities. This may be using ‘orientation lessons’ as described above, or it may be identifying human and physical features in illustrations or using knowledge to create a clear picture of a setting. It’s worth noting that while vegetation is on the list of physical features, if plants or trees have been planted by people, such as flowerbeds in a park, they are in fact human features. Illustrations or mentions of different features in stories could help to provide children with plenty of examples (and non-examples) so that they develop a really secure understanding.

Ks2 guidance to follow next week.

If you would like Victoria to have a look at your curriculum or to help you develop it from scratch, then contact


Curriculum planning: ks1 geography

Eat your data raw!

Far be it from me to position myself as the queen of healthy eating. However, even I know that heavily processed food is less good for us than food in its natural, unprocessed state. Whether raw food is really better that cooked food, I very much doubt. However, let’s run with the raw=good, processed=bad metaphor when applied to the wonderful world of school data.

I think the grip that excessive marking had on our schools is finally beginning to wane. At a recent event I was at for early career stage teachers, I asked how many people worked at schools where heavy duty marking was still the norm. About half the room put their hand up. Last year it would have been at least two thirds, if not three quarters. At our open days about marking, our approach seems less revolutionary now to most who attend and more about tweaking their own approach. Just anecdotes, but maybe signs that more sensible time are on the way. Data however, that’s a different matter. How long before the Teacher Workload Advisory Group on Making Data Work. has any impact?

I’ve written before about how we have attempted to strip back our approach to data.  We’ve stripped it back even more since then, and I’m still not quite convinced we’ve stripped it back enough yet. So I eagerly sought out any workshops on data at ResearchEd Kent yesterday, attending excellent sessions by both Becky Allen and Ben White.. I also reread Tom Sherrinton’s blog about the futile quest to ‘measure’ progress. This is my attempt at a synthesis/summary: a smoothie, if you like, of wholesome data goodness.

Processed food is easy to prepare; pop it in the microwave and ping. And the product is pretty uniform. But that ease and uniformity comes at a price to its nutritional worth. Binders, stabilisers, emulsifiers and preservatives are added to the basic ingredients; salt and sugar are added to make it all palatable. The more the basic raw ingredients are mucked above with, the more their essential goodness is compromised.

Raw, unprocessed food, on the other hand, is much more likely to be high in fibre, low in sugar and salt, and free from various kinds gunk. But it doesn’t come conveniently ready to cook. The individual ingredients are stubbornly individual. Transforming them into a meal will take work and each ingredient needs different work: some need peeling, some chopping, some blanching.  The resultant meals are likely to vary somewhat, even when using the same ingredients.

For years we have consumed highly processed data. Data has been aggregated, averaged and spreadsheetified into a highly reportable, easily consumable product. Contrast this with the messy business of trying to report progress when all you have is as assortment of raw data which you can only describe.  Governors and that host of others who would seek to make us accountable are used to being able to swallow down data purée without having to chew; no wonder they turn their noses up at the prospect of roughage-heavy, honest-to-goodness data wholefood.

Flightpaths, graphs and charts often the illusion of certainty, of rigour. They are (relatively) easy to understand. They blend complex individuality into homogenised simplicity; progress in art can be compared with progress in RE or maths or history. Yet this consistency is a consistency in meaninglessness. This is fake rigour, delusional certainty, but oh so deliciously tempting! Who wouldn’t want the sweet taste of certainty, of ‘sciency’ looking graphs, rather than unpalatable messy reality? No wonder we keep on swallowing those blue pills.

The links will take you to better analysis than I can do here, but processed data is bad for us because:

  • Progress isn’t linear. It happens in fits and starts. We might wish it to be otherwise but wish fulfilment is not a good basis for policy.
  • Any attainment measure is an approximation with a margin of error. Yet we imbue data with spurious accuracy.
  • This margin is magnified when ‘measuring’ progress. This is because progress relies on two measures of attainment, both with margins of error. The concomitant statistical ‘noise’ is therefore deafening
  • Even standardised assessments taken across many schools are unreliable because the stakes attached to these tests will differ from setting to setting and class to class. Children do better when they know the test is really high stakes. So schools which (sensibly) downplay the significance of tests are likely to get lower scores.
  • Schools often set ‘off the peg’ tests that don’t match with what they’ve taught. Unsurprisingly, children do less well on stuff they haven’t been taught. This is therefore an exercise in utterly futility.
  • These pointless tests are very expensive, wasting money that could be better spent elsewhere.
  • Teacher assessment that results in grades is notoriously unreliable.
  • Accountability pressures such as linking performance related pay to data amplifies this unreliability.
  • Trying to compare progress in different subjects is a fool’s errand. Progress in writing is different from progress in science. Reducing it to a number because you want to compare things easily is statistically illiterate. [1]
  • The same is true of trying to compare progress of different age groups.
  • Processing and aggregating all this data is very time consuming. It adds to teacher workload. Its very meaningless makes that work all the more irksome.
  • Unless your school is enormous, analysis of results by groups is statistical nonsense, even if the data made sense. Which it doesn’t.
  • Bu the time children have done these assessments, it’s too late to help them. They are a post mortem rather than an x-ray.
  • And none of this this anything to actually help any child learn anything any better – at best it helps managers allocate scarce extra resources at the chosen few. These ‘few’ will probably not include the most disadvantaged as they won’t look like a safe bet for improving progress scores. This is immoral.

So what’s this raw data you mention?

Instead of highly processed rubbish, what will really help us is limited amounts of raw data, by which I mean the results of highly focused tests/quizzes/assessments that tell you something really specific about what each child can or can’t do. For example, a times table quiz, a check of which sounds a child knows, a multiple choice quiz from a recent history topic, an analysis of a ‘cold write’ for a small number of highly specific grammatical features, a fitness ‘bleep’ test, a test of reading fluency. These kind of assessments are ‘granular; they check how much a child has learnt about a small, specific component of whatever they are learning: the fine ‘grain’ of learning. Such assessments might be reported as a simple test score or percentage. What must be resisted at all costs is aggregating all these results in some sort of statistical blender to make one score. That makes as much sense as putting your starter, main course and pudding into a blender in the hope of making a great tasting meal.

With raw data, you can see where the gaps are and go on to do something about them. There is little point in collecting data in the first place, unless you have a plan to use it in some way to do something as a result beyond reporting it.  In fact, as Becky Allen cautions, think about what you want to do – support those whose reading is less fluent, for example – and then collect data that enables you to pinpoint who those children are. Becky goes on to suggest that there is other raw data we could collect that would really help us deploy those precious extra resources to those who most need them.  Instead of CATS tests, year 7’s should start the year with a series of assessments that will pinpoint those with obvious barriers to progress in secondary school.   For example, a simple handwriting task so that schools can then intervene with those whose handwriting is poor or laborious, tests of times tables and number bonds, reading fluency tests. Then in addition to these, support to help those whose attendance or behaviour is poor or who do not do their homework[2]. For all of these, raw ‘live’ data is readily available and useful.  Throw in a test of phonics and substitute analysis of time spent on independent reading for homework and this list makes perfect sense of primary schools too.

I’d add in a bit of benchmarking, checking how we are doing compared with other schools in case we are deluding ourselves that things are fine when they’re really not. We are using comparative judgment for writing and star reader and star maths standardised assessments. Accelerated reader enables us to track how much independent reading children are doing and support those not doing enough.

When it comes to reporting to governors, local authorities, MATs or Ofsted, you will not be able to pull out a conditionally formatted, high processed chart with neatly aggregated data. All you will be able to do is talk about how you know which children are not doing as well as you want them to and what you are doing about it. Which is exactly what Sean Harford says we should be doing. Not that we do things ‘for Ofsted’ but it sure does help when they talk sense.

Unfortunately, we are still obliged to report certain things that make no sense whatsoever, so here we do what we have to, possibly signalling our disapproval along the way. For example, since we still have to report on the impact of pupil progress on our websites, headteachers might like to consider doing this (look at the end).









[1] Although Deep Ghatura would argue otherwise. Maybe I should say that how we do things now is illiterate but there may be another way.

[2] Ben White’’s blog outlines various things they ask pupils about homework which yields really interesting information.


Eat your data raw!


Stephen’s got ADHD.  He’s such a lovable child, but impulse control is not his strong point. His family have taught him that he must take revenge – physically of course – if crossed. This isn’t the most school-friendly of combinations. Paul is in the same class. His dad is in prison for unspeakable things and his mum deals drugs for a local criminal overload. Once, a rumour got out that she had grassed on someone and reprisals were about to take place before the rumour was quashed. Paul is understandably hyper-vigilant, always scanning the horizon for potential threats. He too has been told to hit back should his honour be in anyway besmirched. Paul and Stephen don’t get on. Stacy comes from a chaotic family. The school is working on her conflict resolution skills, but there is some way to go. Things can escalate very quickly. Terry’s oldest brother is in prison for gang-related violence.  Another brother was stabbed in a reprisal attack, and subsequently stabbed someone else in return. So Terry is now earmarked by the rival gang as their next victim. He too, is hyper-vigilant and understandably prone to over-reaction. Abdul has had to move house due to his brother’s drug related gang activity. The police have warned his family that the other gang see them all as potential targets.  Theo is presently living in a refuge since his mum fled domestic violence. He is mostly quiet and withdrawn, but can lash out when feeling threatened. These children are all in the same class.

The school works hard to meet the needs of these children. There is a learning mentor, work on conflict resolution, liaison with agencies, visits to CAMHS for some, all the usual stuff. In the classroom, a careful seating plan, the warm but firm boundaries, the support from a TA and a skilled teacher all work to ensure that most of the time, the children feel safe enough and calm enough to learn.  In the playground there is lots of space and lot of staff and lots of things the children like doing.  The more competitive games need careful supervision. The presence of little children helps – they bring out the protective instinct and staff get to see a more nurturing side sometimes.

Transitions between class and play, or PE, or music or assembly – these are hard. It’s one things scanning a classroom or even a playground, it’s quite another keeping your eyes on an entire line of children in a twisty turny narrow corridor with multiple sets of fire doors, even with a teacher at one end and a TA at another. The teacher has a lining up order, of course, to make sure the more volatile children are separated from each other. But the class like to chat in the corridor, and that means the line bunches up as friends congregate. There is overtaking, and faster people mistakenly bumping into slower ones. If you’ve got high levels of cortisol in your blood and someone bumps into you, you might over-react and attack. Retaliation might then follow. Friends might get drawn in to the fray.

Everybody knows that the corridor is the once place you might get away with an insult or crafty push. You can always say it was an accident. If something did go wrong at playtime, the corridor is a good place to get your revenge. So the stressed ones are on their guard, uptight, coiled up and ready to react, or plotting to avenge their honour in the two minute walk back to class.

Daniel is autistic. He likes rules. If someone overtakes him, or anyone else for that matter, he will take the matter into his own hands and put them back – sometimes physically – in the ‘right’ place. Sometimes he remembers he mustn’t do that and just shouts at them instead. Often this results in an altercation.

These are unpleasant for everyone. It takes at least half an hour to calm everybody down until they are ready to talk about what happens, and another half an hour to establish what went wrong. Time during which those involved, including those on the periphery, aren’t learning and staff aren’t teaching.

Yet this was all so avoidable.

When the school introduced silent corridors, these stress-ridden, hyper-vigilant children could relax.  They felt safe. Because they had to walk in single file, one behind the other, in a set order, there was no bunching, no bumping. No more having to scan your classmates in case someone is ‘cussing’ you. No more worrying if someone is going to get their own back from a problem in the playground. No more holding in your anger at a perceived sight only to vent it in the seconds when you enter the teacher’s blind spot as you round a corner.

The adults were in charge again.

In a different school where not quite as many children had such stressful lives, Susie might have enjoyed strolling in from play, chatting to her friends. She’s calm, well-behaved and doesn’t need the reassuring presence of an adult in order to resolve any problems. However, when the rules change and she isn’t allowed to talk to her friends for a couple of minutes during transitions, she gets it. It’s only two minutes after all, and it’s so much easier for the others. She’s a compassionate child. She willingly accepts this very minor restriction, even when she forgets one day and receives a minor sanction.

This is why we introduced silent corridors. Not in some power-crazed attempt to coerce children to bend to our will, but as a well thought out response, a reasonable adjustment to a high level of need. If your school doesn’t work day in, day out with those kinds of needs (and obviously the above has been fictionalised to a degree – the reality is actually even more challenging), then maybe it seems weird to you. I’m sure you have other challenges I know nothing of and do things I might feel not understand.


What’s all the fuss about a knowledge-rich curriculum? part one

Here’s part of my talk from yesterday’s ResearchED,  A word of warning though, if you are a regular reader of my blogs, it is very similar indeed to my previous post ‘Mutual Misunderstandings’ although now with pretty pictures added. This blog talks about what knowledge is and features the first part of my intended talk. I massively ran out of time during my talk, so rushed through the bit on understanding somewhat breathlessly.  I will put that section into another blog in due course.

I was having dinner with a headteacher friend who told me how much my name was reviled by some of her colleagues because apparently, as an advocate of a knowledge-rich curriculum, I was in favour of bombarding children with facts in boring lectures and was only interested in teaching to the test.  This is frustrating, because it’s so wrong, and might lead to people missing out on the wonders of knowledge-rich goodness! So to put the record straight…

The first misunderstanding is to think that that when we speak of knowledge, we only mean acquiring facts.  That’s not the case at all. Knowledge can be divided into declarative knowledge and procedural knowledge.

knowledge isnt facts

Declarative knowledge includes concepts and rules as well as facts and will allow us ‘to recognize things, make judgments, classify things, discriminate differences and identify similarities.’[1]

So for example, it is declarative knowledge that lets us recognise a tree as a tree, judge that it is a mighty fine tree, or an old tree, classify it as a Horse Chestnut, discriminate how it is different from a Sweet Chestnut and identify how both are similar, being examples of deciduous trees.


Procedural knowledge is knowledge that produces action, that enables us to do stuff. It is goal directed, whereas declarative knowledge (the kind of knowledge that includes, but is not limited to facts) just sits there waiting to be of service. It doesn’t of itself result in any action.  Procedural knowledge actually enables us to do things. Most obviously, it involves motor behaviour; learning to play the guitar or catch a ball are both forms of procedural knowledge.  To throw a ball, you don’t need to also know the physics behind it, you don’t need factual knowledge of how it all works. You need to build motor memory and that is a form of knowledge learnt through paying attention and repeated practice. But procedural knowledge isn’t only about muscle movement, it also lies behind enabling us to use declarative knowledge.  Solving an equation or balancing a chemical reaction, both involve turning declarative understanding into procedural knowledge.

dec vs proc

To use an analogy, in football, its no good just having strikers who score goals, you also need players who can assist the striker, players who set up the opportunities for the striker to  do their thing.

assist striker.PNG


Of course we want knowledge to be put to work, to use declarative knowledge to do actual stuff, it’s just that you don’t get to do the stuff  unless  you have the requisite declarative knowledge in the first place. Yet the fear is that the knowledge-rich brigade are only interested in the declarative side of things. This fear is misplaced. The knowledge-rich crew simply value declarative knowledge as a crucial part of the learning equation – alongside procedural knowledge – and want to liberate it from its imprisonment in the dungeon at the base of Bloom’s taxonomy, derided as somehow objectionably  ‘lower order’, looked down upon in condescending fashion by the haute bourgeoisie of the ‘higher order thinking skills’ clique.


Instead, we want to champion the absolutely vital place it holds as enabling all further thought.  Instead of Bloom’s triangle, how about we have Sealy’s Funnel?

sealys funnel

Synthesis and evaluation – what we might call creativity and critical thinking – are only possible once vast amounts of knowledge have been understood.  Far from being ‘lower order’, knowledge is our precious  cognitive capital. with critical thinking its dividend.

Christine Counsell talks about the curriculum as needing a hinterland which nurtures and sustains the city. in the same way as a city needs a vast area of land surrounding it to provide it with the water, food, fuel and people it needs to thrive, so creativity and critical thinking rely on extensive and wide ranging knowledge.


People sometimes refer to the ability to do such things as acquiring skills rather than procedural knowledge. The word ‘skills’ however, is particularly problematic as it is used to mean several different things. For example, it is used to describe dispositions such as resilience and behaviours such as collaboration, it is also used to describe things such as inference and problem solving, which traditionalists are more likely to see as different kinds of disciplinary knowledge, and then again it is used for procedural knowledge. Knowledge-rich advocates positively embrace procedural knowledge and also are happy to endorse dispositions and behaviours such as collaboration and resilience, though might argue that there are plenty of opportunities for encouraging both within an ordinary maths or PE lesson.  The fault line lies  with the so-called generic skills such as problem solving, or explanation.

skills 3 ways

troub;e with generic

Knowledge-rich advocates argue that while things such as problem solving or explaining or observing are important, they are not generic skills.  These terms imply different things in different subjects. ‘Explanation’ in history has a different meaning than ‘explanation; in science for example. Even something apparently straightforward like ‘observation’ means something different depending on whether you are doing something in an art lesson or a science lesson. What is worthy of observing will differ.

For example, if I ask a bank robber ‘why did you rob the bank?’ I am expecting a moral or psychological explanation and not a logical one. I would not expect the answer ‘because that’s were the most money is.’  That’s not the kind of explanation I’m expecting.


Explanations in history and science are very different.

sceince vs hisotriy

Similarly, close observation drawing differs depending on whether its a science or an art lesson.

science vs artthe knowledge vs skills debate is an argument about the extend to which skills are transferable from one context to another and not about whether or not these  ‘skills’ are important.

k vs s




[1] From The Unified Learning Model, Shell , D et al  chapter 4

What’s all the fuss about a knowledge-rich curriculum? part one

Mutual Misunderstandings- the hidden lives of tweeters.

I love Twitter, and I’ve learnt so much since I joined it a mere 4 year ago. Yet recently, I’m getting tired of having the same old arguments going round and round the same territory, with people seeing to talk past each other, using the same word to mean different things.  For example, take the word ‘engagement.’ To one person, this is obviously a great thing – who wouldn’t want their pupils absorbed in their learning? For this person, the opposite of engagement is disengagement, and surely nobody wants their pupils disengaged.  Yet for another person ‘engagement’ means something completely different. For them, it is shorthand for an approach to education that they reject; one that thinks the content of what we teach is inherently boring to many pupils, so therefore needs to be dressed up in ‘fun’, thereby tricking pupils into learning. For this person, anyone advocating ‘engagement’ has woefully low expectations of children and is short-changing them with fun ‘edutainment’ instead of substance. For such people, the opposite of ‘engagement’ is learning. So if these two people, with their different definitions of engagement have an exchange of views on Twitter, it will appear to each other that the person they are arguing with is advocating either disengagement or baby-sitting.

I had my own experience of this recently. I, in all innocence, used the word ‘delivery’ in the context of teaching. To my mind this is a perfectly harmless word. If pushed, I’d maybe link it to how Santa delivers eagerly awaited presents to excited children. (Yeah, all my lessons were that great…) But apparently ‘delivery’ is some sort of evil trigger word, with connotations of ramming pipes into the throats of geese and pumping them over full of grain in order to make fois gras.  It signalled my moral depravity. Yet I was just using it as a synonym for ‘teach.’

Each brings their own prior learning to the table. One person remembers their own terrible school experience of dull, dreary, soul crushing lessons that all but extinguished any desire to learn and is motivated by their resultant burning conviction to ensure their lessons breathe light, life and passionate interest into those who experience them.  The other cringes as they remember their earlier exhausting attempts to dupe pupils by disguising the learning with some complicated, ‘fun’ activity and subsequent relief when later on, they just started teaching directly and found that a much better way of arousing a passionate interest. No wonder they don’t agree. Both are fighting an enemy the other cannot see.[1]

This morning, I read this very interesting interview with Dylan Wiliam.  One of the bits that really got me thinking was this.

‘any teaching should start from what the learner already knows…teachers should ascertain this, and teach accordingly. The problem is that even with a new and unfamiliar topic, after 20 minutes teaching, students will have different understandings of the material, which the teacher needs to know about. What you call the curse of knowledge is part of that—we assume something is easier if we know it.’

Which resonated with something I’d read earlier this week by Harry Fletcher Webb about how when we teach adults, we often forget that they too, just like children, build on what they already know and sometimes form misunderstandings because connect the new stuff we are teaching to their prior knowledge in a faulty way. [2]

It seems rather pompous to say that when we tweet, we are seeking to ‘teach.’ Yet I certainly engage with Twitter in order to learn and indeed I have learnt an awful lot. And yes, sometimes I hope what I say will help other people learn. I am sure there are many reasons to go on twitter, to be entertained, for banter, for company, to show off, for that self-righteous thrill of point scoring, but also to be inspired, to learn things and to share what you have learnt with others, hoping that some may find it useful;  it’s that last reason that motivates me to write blogs.

As a teaching medium, Twitter has its drawbacks! A strict character limit, the torrent of ‘interruptions’ to one’s line of argument when all and sundry can comment, the conversation lurching off in bizarre directions, massive disputes about who actually, if anyone, is the teacher, who is worth listening too, the distraction of other threads, for you as well as anyone else…actually when I think about it, it’s amazing I’ve learnt anything from Twitter yet it has been incredibly powerful in my own learning.  Mainly because Twitter points me to blogs which have fewer of the shortcomings listed above and where I can learn from people I have chosen, by my act of clicking, to learn from. [3]Yet many of the people I engage with don’t have blogs and obviously not everybody who I interact with reads my blogs (the fools!)

All of which is a long prelude to what comes next. The more I argue over the same ground again and again, the more I am aware that I am being misunderstood. I am saying words which to me have a clear and obvious meaning yet they’re being taken to mean something quite different. I also know this works the other way around too and I completely misunderstand what other people are saying. For example, someone says ‘child-centred’ and, building on my prior experience, I imagine the crazy excesses of having to teach via an integrated day and how much more everybody learnt when I stopped doing that and actually taught children stuff. When they might mean something quite different. (Or they might not, that’s the problem, it’s hard to tell). It’s so easy when arguing with someone to imagine the worst possible version of what they are espousing, and the best possible version of what you are arguing for. If they do the same, that’s a recipe for more heat than light. The hidden lives of our prior experiences make mutual misunderstandings inevitable.  Human nature exacerbates the problem, with people falling into ‘in-crowds’ and ‘out-crowds’, retweeting and sub tweeting and eye rolling and argument by GIF. I believe some people even DM catty messages to each other about third parties.

However, today the better side of my nature is on the bridge and what follows is simply an attempt to genuinely help people understand what those of us who are advocating ‘traditional’ teaching mean. Or possible clear up what we don’t mean. Probably, the social media bubble being what it is, I am preaching to the choir but hey ho.

First of all, that word ‘traditional.’ The scope for misunderstanding this word, (and its rival ‘progressive’) is immense. There was a great blog this week about just this problem. If people had a bad experience of very formal education, the ‘traditional’ tag is like a red rag to a bull. But take heed, the word does not imply that everything back in the olden days was rosy and we should bring back the cane, sit four year olds in rows and bore children into a stupor. It’s used in contrast with the term ‘progressive.’  Progressive sounds so lovely, who doesn’t want to be progressive? But here, ‘progressive’ does not mean ‘the opposite of regressive’ but is rather a description of a philosophical tradition in which the writings of such people as Rousseau, John Dewey and Jean Piaget are foundational. For a fuller description, see Greg Ashman here.  Summarising self-proclaimed progressive Alfie Kohn, Greg Ashman describes progressive education as one where students help to direct the curriculum, students seek and find their own answers, a focus on intrinsic motivation that eschews coercion and the drawing of a distinction between knowledge and understanding in order to focus on the latter. Traditional education, by way of contrast believes that teachers are experts in their subject and therefore they should design the curriculum and teach it explicitly. Traditional teaching believes that there is a ‘tradition’ of knowledge that students are entitled to.[4]

The second misunderstanding is that when we speak of knowledge, we only mean acquiring facts.  That’s not the case at all. Knowledge can be divided into declarative knowledge and procedural knowledge. Declarative knowledge includes concepts and rules as well as facts and will allow us ‘to recognize things, make judgments, classify things, discriminate differences and identify similarities.’[5] Procedural knowledge is knowledge that produces action, that enables us to do stuff. It is goal directed, whereas declarative knowledge (the kind of knowledge that includes, but is not limited to facts) just sits there waiting to be of service. It doesn’t of itself result in any action.  Procedural knowledge actually enables us to do things. Most obviously, it involves motor behaviour; learning to play the guitar or catch a ball are both forms of procedural knowledge.  To throw a ball, you don’t need to also know the physics behind it, you don’t need factual knowledge of how it all works. You need to build motor memory and that is a form of knowledge learnt through paying attention and repeated practice. But procedural knowledge isn’t only about muscle movement, it also lies behind enabling us to use declarative knowledge.  Solving an equation or balancing a chemical reaction, both involve turning declarative understanding into procedural knowledge. There is so much more to knowledge than just facts (as useful as they are).

People sometimes refer to the ability to do such things as acquiring skills rather than procedural knowledge. The word ‘skills’ however, is particularly problematic as it is used to mean several different things. For example, it is used to describe dispositions such as resilience and behaviours such as collaboration, it is also used to describe things such as inference and problem solving, which traditionalists are more likely to see as different kinds of disciplinary knowledge[6], and then again it is used for procedural knowledge.

The third misunderstanding is to think that traditionalist teachers are only interested in knowledge rather than understanding. Again this is quite wrong. What traditionalist teachers assert is that it is impossible to understand something unless you know something about it. This is because understanding, properly understood, is simply having lots of well organised knowledge that is connected together. I wrote about this recently in my previous blog so I won’t repeat that again here.  Understanding is literally made out of knowledge. So it is possible to know something without understanding it but it is not possible to understand something without knowing it. This diagram by Efrat Furst explains it well.

understanding model efrat Furst

The fourth common misunderstanding is to think that therefore, traditionalists think that lessons should be formal lectures where the lecturer does 99% of the talking, the learners role in the process inherently passive. This is not the case. The kind of explicit instruction most traditionalists favour – and like anything it is a broad church, so there will be differences in emphasis – is highly interactive.  It will involve questioning not just of the few eager clever clogs but of everybody present, through strategies such as ‘cold calling’, using mini whiteboards, individual exercises interspersing the teacher explanation. It might involve discussing things in pairs or even doing a short bit of drama. In a maths lesson, it might well involve children using manipulatives. What is more, it does not preclude the use of other ways of sharing the information other than a teacher talking (though this will be the most common way). A video clip might be used if it is a more effective way of explaining something – for example, an animation of the heart beating might well be a better way of explaining the role of the heart and lungs in the circulatory system than just a verbal description. Who wouldn’t show the clip of Commander David Scott  dropping a feather and a hammer at the same time on the moon to show that without air resistance, objects fall at the same rate.

Traditionalist teachers also follow up the explicit teaching phase with ‘shed loads of practice’ – gloriously shortened to SLOP. If learning is to stick, long term, it needs to be practised over and over, to the point where it becomes automatic and can be recalled without conscious effort. Some of this practice might even involve tightly planned opportunities to ‘discover’ aspects of what is being taught, for example, variation theory can be used to devise the kind of deliberate practice that helps learners notice patterns, similarities and differences. However, there would always be some sort of teacher commentary at some point to draw attention to things that might not have been noticed.

The final misunderstanding I am going to cover is the erroneous belief that traditionalist teachers adhere to a crude ‘transmission’ model and don’t realise that learners build – or construct – their learning on what they already know. Of course traditionalist teachers do believe they have a tradition worth sharing (or transmitting, though the word lacks nuance).  Whereas while traditionalist teacher eschew constructivist teaching, they are well aware of constructivist learning theories. Learners build on what they already know and construct meaning out of the connections formed between their established and new learning. See the point about understanding above. Efrat Furst explains this in more detail here.

In fact, I’d go so far as to say that traditionalist teachers are more concerned about prior learning than progressive teachers because of the pivotal role prior learning plays in whether we understand or misunderstand something. Misunderstanding occurs when we connect bits of knowledge together in the wrong way. For example, if we know that addition can be done in any order so 2+3=5 and 3+2=5, when we learn about subtraction, we think that this also can be done in any order so think that 5-2=3 and 2-5=3. We’ve made a false connection between our new knowledge and our existing knowledge.

This is why questioning and other forms of formative assessment are so important to try and ascertain that the right connections are being made and to address misconceptions as soon as possible, before they become too established.  It is also why traditionalist teachers use explicit teaching that breaks knowledge down into very small sub steps to minimise the risk that wrong connections will be made. Traditionalist teachers are really aware of the ‘curse of knowledge’, the difficulty ‘experts’ have in realising how complicated something really is and therefore overwhelming students working memories by trying to teach too much at once. Indeed, in what is probably the ‘purist’ form of traditionalist teaching, the Direct Instruction method designed by Engelmann, concepts are meticulously broken down into minute sub steps, carefully explained and regularly practised so that the new learning has the best possible opportunity to connect to prior knowledge in the right way.

Aren’t labels funny. My husband swears he is a social constructivist, yet he does all this stuff. Maybe when we label ourselves or others, that is more about the group of people we want to belong to (or not belong to), more about the kind of people we believe ourselves to be.

[1] I’m not saying that there are not also honest to goodness, downright disagreements where people understand perfectly well what the other is saying. Such disagreements are (I think) often disagreements about what each other values. Possibly.

[2] Well that’s not quite what Harry said, but it’s how I connected it to what I already knew!

[3] Though I also click on people I am pretty sure I will disagree with too. Sometimes even with an open(ish) mind!

[4] Thanks to Andrew Old for this way of explaining it

[5] From The Unified Learning Model, Shell , D et al  chapter 4

[6] With each discipline determining what is meant by the term, so terms mean different things in different subjects. ‘Explanation’ in history has a different meaning than ‘explanation; in science for example. Even something apparently straightforward like ‘observation’ means something different depending on whether you are doing something in an art lesson or a science lesson. What is worthy of observing will differ.

Mutual Misunderstandings- the hidden lives of tweeters.

In praise of a prosaic curriculum

In case you’ve been living in an underground bunker for the last year or two, the curriculum is now a thing. More than that, it’s the next big thing in education. The new framework for inspection arriving in our schools from September 2019 will have the quality of the curriculum firmly in its sights. Intent, implementation and impact are set to become our new lodestar, possibly (fingers crossed) eclipsing sats and GCSE results at the centre of the school solar system.  Amanda Spielman has made it quite clear, mistaking ‘badges and stickers’ [the performance table success that comes with having great data] for learning and the substance of education, is a mistake, and one, presumably, that the new framework will seek to overcome. I do not under-estimate the massive culture shift involved, for both inspectors and schools. It’s nothing short of a revolution. (I wrote a blog about this a year ago; in terms of what actually happening in schools I don’t think much headway has been made in rearranging our priorities.)

Inevitably, in the build up to the new framework, various people, myself included, are offering training to schools about how to develop your curriculum. I’m seriously worried about some of the examples on offer.  For example, I heard about one school advertising that its amazing curriculum now had 60% of learning outside (and they weren’t talking about Early Years). Why is doing 60% of learning outside of itself a good thing, any more than doing 60% of learning indoors is a priori a good thing? Surely you decide this on a case by case basis? Pond dipping? Orienteering? That’ll be outside. How to use semi colons? Writing a paragraph about the Roman invasion of Britain? Probably inside. Learning does not become more durable or transferrable according to its location, though I would have thought for most learning having a regulated temperature and protection from the elements and flying insects, not to mention good acoustics, the facility to model ideas on a board of some sort and a surface upon which to write are all quite useful features.

I’ve heard of schools where ‘hooking’ the children into learning involved spending a whole day dressing up as Romans, and eating Roman food and so on. A whole day! Or another school where to build empathy with the homeless they spend the day (and possibly the night) camping on a field.  When reading and discussing Way Home would have achieved the same objective in 30 minutes. Personally I think the best hook is a teacher saying animatedly ‘You are going to love learning about the Romans!’ and then teaching it with passion, but if a school wants to spend 10 minutes on some sort of hook, so be it. But burning through whole day of precious curriculum time is just profligate! As if fitting everything into the limited time we have available to us was easy!

The mot du jour seems to be ‘exciting.’  All around me, schools are proclaiming how exciting their revised curriculum now is, as if ‘excitement’ were the substance of education. Alongside ‘exciting’, I also often hear that curriculums are ‘innovative’ and ‘engaging.’  Superficially, these sound like persuasive descriptions of great learning, especially if you contrast excitement with boredom, innovation with stagnation and engagement with distraction.[1] The problem with ‘excitement’ though, is that it’s not a great way to ensure the kind of learning that is durable in the longer term, or that transfers from one context to another. In other words, it might be fun at the time, but it is less likely to result in long term learning. In exciting lessons, you run the risk of remembering the excitement, rather than the learning. I’ve written before about the difference between episodic and semantic memory.  Let me recap the essential differences between the two.

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 or exciting, 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, by contrast, 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.  That might sound a bit boring, compared with episodic memory.  Yet it is our amazing ability to store culturally acquired learning in our semantic memory that makes as so successful as a species. Semantic memory is how we know stuff. Without it, human culture would not exist.

The problem with episodic memories is that while they may be acquired effortlessly, they come with several drawbacks in terms of acquiring skills and knowledge. Episodic memories come tagged with context. In the episodic memory, the sensory data – what a child saw and heard during a lesson – alongside their emotions, become part of the learning. These emotional and sensory cues are triggered when they try and retrieve an episodic memory. The problem being that sometimes they remember the contextual tags but not the actual learning. Episodic memory is so tied up with context it is no good for remembering things once that context is no longer present. Because it is context-bound, it does not transfer well to different contexts. 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.

At this point, it is usual for people to say ‘but what about understanding? There’s no point having a load of facts if you don’t understand them.’  Which is of course true.  However, understanding happens in the semantic memory! Understanding is the word we use for when we have a well-developed schema for something – in other words, understanding is what happens when we have lots of well organised, connected knowledge, as opposed a handful of unconnected facts (or no facts). It’s the connections between facts that is understanding. When we misunderstand something, that is because we have made the wrong connections. For example we might have connected how the concept of value works in natural (counting) numbers with how value works in rational numbers such as fractions, and therefore think the bigger the denominator, the bigger the value of the fraction.  When we don’t understand something (as opposed to misunderstanding it), that is because we have not made enough connections yet. If we only know one or two facts about something, understanding is hard because the potential to make connections is so limited. Our two lonely facts may seem a bit meaningless. If however we know hundreds of different facts about a topic, that changes the nature of our thinking; we can now weave a rich web of understanding because there are so many connections that can be made.  Because of the wealth of connections, we can think deeply and creatively. Jo Facer has written an excellent blog expanding on this here.

This is why progression in a subject necessarily involves acquiring more knowledge. As more knowledge is acquired, more links are made; thinking is structured differently so more nuanced application is possible. Schools should be wary of curriculum packages that describe progression in terms of levels of learning (e.g. basic, advancing and deep) and spout nonsense such as progression involving ‘changing  the  nature  of  thinking  rather  than  just  acquiring  new  knowledge.’

Because understanding is literally made out of knowledge, it is possible to know something without understanding it, but you can’t understand it without knowing it. The onus on the teacher then is to carefully share their own schema step by step, explicitly describing/explaining/modelling the links and being alert for misconceptions. Indeed, assessment for learning – or responsive teaching as it is more appropriately called, involves checking for missing knowledge and misconceptions (wrongly connected knowledge) and remedying them when found.

This being the case, I would argue that the main substance  of education – the back bone of it, so to speak – is building strong semantic memory; the passing on and further development of 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, how people in different times and places are so different and yet so similar, and the myriad of other concepts, ideas and practices.  We want children to understand concepts and facts rather than just remember events and experiences. Alongside this, we should also be building procedural memory (the memory of how to perform physical tasks and skills such as handwriting or riding a bike, or playing the piano).  Honing these skills – or procedural knowledge – comes down to regular practice, not to exciting, innovative experiences.

This building of semantic and procedural memory sounds terribly prosaic. What about critical thinking, problem solving and creativity I hear you ask? Why aren’t we teaching them? Surely this is what education is for – not just knowing stuff?

Again, I’d agree. Helping children grow into people who can think critically for themselves, who can solve problems and be creative is the ultimate goal of education.  However, we should not confuse the ends with the means. If we want children to be able to think critically and solve problems, then they need something to think critically with. For this they need knowledge, and the kind of flexible knowledge that is durable and transfers between contexts. This necessarily involves using semantic memories stored in the long term memory. If we want children to be creative and innovative, they need knowledge of the tradition upon which they are going to innovate.  You can’t really teach critical thinking as a detached skill; what you can do is teach various metacognitive strategies such as ‘consider both sides of an issue.’  Of course, this only helps if your students know what both sides are, so these metacognitive strategies need to be taught and applied within a specific context. In other words, teach someone about something and then give them opportunities to think critically about it. Don’t start off a programme of study with critical thinking or problem solving. Lay the ground work first, carefully and systematically building the requisite knowledge so that then students can apply their knowledge, using it to solve problems, possibly generating creative, novel solutions.

This building of semantic and procedural memory is not the only purpose of education, of course.  If it’s the backbone, then it will need further fleshing out. It’s just as important that we educate children to be emotionally literate and morally responsible and that will involve thinking about the kind of episodic memories we try and build for our children. We want some memories to come tagged with emotion. 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.  If we want them to feel compassion for others, we will treat them with compassion.

Building of episodic memory is important for other reasons too.  Episodic memory encodes memories of our experiences, whatever they are. Another key purpose of education is to broaden the range of these everyday experiences so that we are lifted up out of our familiar and parochial context and gain the kind of perspective that comes from encountering new, different situations. Some children have very narrow life experiences, as this thoughtful blog by Debra Kidd testifies. Here’s an extract from it:

Hywel Roberts tells a story in his wonderful key notes about teaching in a school in Sheffield. The class are looking at town planning and urban developments, so as a way in, he asks them what they might find in a great city – if the city of Sheffield were to be redeveloped, what would they put there? One by one, the children list things the city should have – a Greggs, a BP Garage, a hairdressers called Streakers…they are describing their walk to school. For many of the children, their only experience of the city they live in is the walk to and from school. For those children and others like them, getting on a coach and going to a museum is about far, far more than remembering aspects of the curriculum. It can be literally life changing.

It is not only the most disadvantaged children who could benefit from experiencing wider horizons.  Plenty of children, particularly in they live in a city, might never have climbed a mountain or seen the sea, or even been to the local park. Rural children might never have been to a big city, let alone looked down on a cityscape from the top of a skyscraper or cathedral or castle turret.  Swathes of children might never have visited an art gallery or heard classical music or music from a different culture or been to the theatre or nature park or on a train or in a boat or even gone away on holiday, beyond visiting relatives.  This is why schools such as Hartford Manor have a curriculum pledge that builds in a range of experiences – dare I say, exciting experiences – into their curriculum as an entitlement. See this blog by Loic Menzies which articulates how life enhancing he found the rich opportunities he had for outdoor adventure as a child and why he believes all children should have such opportunities.

Other, superficially more advantaged children may also have limited life experiences. They might never have properly encountered people who live in different socio-economic circumstances, for example and so have no idea how challenging it is to live a life of grinding poverty. Or they might live within a mono-culture, never meeting people from different cultures or traditions. With adults increasing living in narrow social media bubbles, rarely encountering people who think differently from them, it is all the more important that education broadens out all children’s horizons and enriches all communities. In other words, curriculums need to be planned to foster spiritual, moral, social and cultural development as well as knowledge acquisition.  This will require attending to both episodic and semantic memory formation.  A carefully planned programme of experiences that compliments and reinforces the super abundance of SMSC inherent in a rounded study of history, literature, art, music, RE, geography, MFL, maths, science, PE, PHSE and so on should provide this.

So if I’m all in favour of building procedural learning, opportunities to apply knowledge in critical thinking and with creativity, to emotional literacy and moral responsibility, and experiences that broaden horizons as well as education that builds semantic memory, what exactly is my problem and why am I banging on about a prosaic curriculum?[2]

This is because there is a world of difference between planning a set of experiences that consciously address the specific kind of narrowness that a school’s particular context creates and believing that excitement per se is a good enough reason for inclusion on the curriculum.  Providing experiences just because children might find them exciting and enjoyable is not a great reason to allocate them precious curriculum time. (Which is not to say they can never happen, just that they should be the rare exception rather than the rule).  Nor is this to say lessons must be dull and uninspiring. That’s just as bad.  There is a middle ground between a curriculum that panders to a craving for ever more excitement and is preoccupied with novelty and gimmicks and a dismally boring, dry as dust snooze-fest. Something solid and prosaic, something with enough cognitive challenging to be absorbing. The engagement comes from the subject matter itself and the feeling of satisfaction one feels after a bit of struggle.  Easy success isn’t rewarding; earned success is motivating.

When I use the word prosaic, I am not using it to mean dull and boring, but to mean ordinary, everyday, usual, familiar, regular, customary, typical, bread-and-butter – stuff that isn’t ‘sexy’ or glamorous or flashy, but that forms the bedrock of what we do in schools. Some of this is the stuff that forms the foundation upon which more interesting stuff depends. Learning to read, to add and subtract, learning number facts and times tables, to use punctuation and spell correctly, handwriting; basic, humdrum everyday stuff, no bells and whistles, the stuff of learning, this should be at the heart of our curriculums because without it, nothing else is possible. Sometimes derided and sneered at, often looked down upon, let’s hear a cheer for the workaday workhorse of education.

I sometimes see on Twitter teachers moaning that phonics is tedious and the decodable early readers are boring. Which is to completely miss the point – they aren’t intended to be great works of literature, they are intended to teach children to read (so that they can go on to read great works of literature).  Teaching phonics is as tedious as you want it to be. Young children love learning to do ‘grown up’ things like reading, and if you show how excited and impressed you are that children can now blend p-i-n, then they will be excited and impressed with themselves too. That’s where the engagement comes in, with the success. The lesson isn’t meant to entertain the teacher after all, it’s meant to develop the child and some of them things that help a child develop, especially early on, are pretty prosaic. The sentence ‘Clap, clap, clap on the big, red bus,’ is not, of itself, desperately interesting. However, being able to turn all those squiggles into actual words that make up a sentence is amazing! Criticising a decodable reader because of its limited story line is like telling a babbling baby their conversation is boring. To the ‘phonics is boring’ brigade I say, ‘stop raining on the children’s parade!’ If you are not delighted and enthused by helping young children take their first steps on the reading journey, then you are in the wrong job. (Or wrong phase, perhaps).

Then there is also the content, the knowledge, the substance that we want to teach; knowing where countries are on a map of the world or what a force is or what the industrial revolution was or what the 5 pillars are or what irrigation means. Content that is taught and practised and revisited so that the learning is durable. So that it can be transferred in different contexts and used in critical thinking. If we want children to think critically about arguments around immigration, it helps to know where different countries are in relation to one another. If we want children to think critically about the engineering challenges inherent in a mission to Mars, it helps to know about force and gravity. If we want children to think critically about the advantages and disadvantages of industrialisation for an economically developing country, knowledge of the industrial revolution will provide a useful way in. If Britain developed in the 19th century by exploiting our resources and workers, are we right to condemn other countries for doing the same now in the 21st century? If we want to have an informed understanding of Islam rather than one tainted with ill-informed Islamaphobic histrionics, understanding the importance of the 5 pillars for Muslims is a necessary but not sufficient starting point. If we want children to think responsibly about natural resources, knowing about water use and the benefits and pitfalls of irrigation is vital.  The knowledge we teach forms the “teeth” in the gears of understanding. Without knowledge, understanding cannot gain any traction.   Such content is inherently interesting in the hands of a skilful teacher, it does not need sugar coating with gimmicks in order to make it palatable.

There is a misconception that this entails a ‘lecture’ form of lesson, with children meekly listening for long periods of time to their teacher. This is not at all what I am advocating. Rather, I am suggesting (courtesy of Greg Ashman) that the majority of lessons have four main features. They are planned and led by the teacher, who makes conscious choices about the sequence of learning, the content is broken down into small steps with children learning how to do each individual step well before the steps are brought together into task that require the sub steps to be integrated all at once, concepts are fully explained – children do not have to ‘discover’ it all by themselves and finally teaching is highly interactive with everybody required to participate throughout the lesson.[3] I’d also add in that they frequently revisit previous learning with regular retrieval practice so that memory of previously taught content is strengthened. Such lessons are usually calm rather than dull or whacky.

Towards the end of a sequence of such lessons, I’d advocate opportunities to apply what has been learnt.  At this stage, the child integrates the sub steps in some way with less explicit teacher direction. There are a myriad of ways this could be done, from writing an essay to goal free problem solving to pursuing one’s own line of inquiry to doing a test to making a model or creating some art work.[4]

However, anything can be done to death.   Having a template lesson structure is one thing, clinging to it come hell or high water is another. Occasionally mixing up the structure – for example – using a Mantle of the Expert approach once in a while or doing some sort of whizzy experiment or workshop provides variety and counterpoint.   Just don’t confuse this with the prosaic core.




[1] Though you could also contrast over-excitement with calmness, gimmicky innovation with tried and tested methods and superficial engagement with the medium of the lesson as opposed to focused absorption on the core content.

[2] Yes, it’s beginning to sound a bit like the ‘what have the Romans ever done for us’ sketch from the life of Brian.

[3] This list comes from Greg Ashman’s excellent new book, chapter 5, The Truth about Teaching, sage Publications 2018

[4] Though I’d be wary if the final project ate into too much curriculum time. I’d go for an 80:20 or 90:10 balance. So making a claymation video about embalming mummies would not be a good use of time, unless you believed learning how to do claymation was as itself an important part of the art/computing curriculum. Great for an after school club though.

In praise of a prosaic curriculum

Responsive teaching, responsive leadership

Based on my presentation at the Medway Network of the Chartered College of Teaching

Inaugural Conference on Culture, Wellbeing, Workload.

Over the last couple of years, I’ve made a concerted effort to question how we do things. Just because something is the accepted way of doing things, doesn’t mean it is the most efficient or effective. The two main things we’ve really changed is how we mark and how we observe lessons.  Reading the research around marking and feedback and reading various blogs quickly convinced me that marking was a very inefficient use of staff time and had limited impact on learning. Similarly, having termly graded lesson observations was an inefficient use of SLT and had limited impact on improving teaching or learning. Instead of marking, we now have responsive teaching; instead of termly observations we now have responsive leadership.

Kluger and Denissi’s research into written feedback found that students often learn less when teachers provide written feedback than they do when the teacher writes nothing.[1] 38% of feedback made learning worse! Yet the marking mania epidemic still has teachers throughout the land double or triple marking work, with teachers, or maybe just their senior leaders, convinced that this is a touch stone of good practice. Assessment for learning has become a ritualised performance believed to magically invoke learning, as long as the prescribed coloured pens, fans, gestures or whatever are used in the liturgically correct way.  No wonder Dylan William declared he wished he had called formative assessment ‘responsive teaching’ instead.

So what is responsive teaching?  It’s really very straightforward. It’s

  • Looking at pupils’ work, either within the lesson or after it, and responding to what you find out.
  • Gathering feedback for the teacher, about the pupil
  • Using this feedback to decide what to teach next

Shorn of its ritualistic associations, we can embrace a simple definition of feedback as ‘information about reactions and/or performance which is used as a basis for improvement.’ So scanning the classroom to see what pupils’ facial expressions are telling us is one commonplace – and very useful – way of gaining feedback. If half the class look clueless, there is probably a problem that needs urgent responding to!

When we look at pupil’s work after a lesson to gather feedback about what to do next, it’s looking for the bottleneck, the main thing holding pupils back in their learning, and teaching that, regardless of whether or not it is on the scheme of work for that year group. If many pupils still can’t use full stops and capital letters correctly even in year 3/5/10, there’s no point in moving onto fronted adverbials or whatever, despite what the official plan says. Fix that first. It’s not going to fix itself. Instead of writing in pupils’ books what their next step is, the next step is…the next lesson. Respond to what pupils don’t yet know by teaching them.

Tom Sherrington outlined 5 ways teachers might respond to feedback. I’ve played around with this a bit and come up with my own version of 6 ways, more geared to a primary context (though I don’t see why these wouldn’t work with secondary pupils too).

1.Reteach – they don’t understand this. I need to reteach with different examples

Sometimes you look at books after a lesson and realise that an awful lot of pupils have got the complete wrong end of the stick. So instead of pressing on with the next lesson in the series, you go back and teach whatever it was again, only better.

2. Revise – they know something about this but we need to go over it again because otherwise they will forget it

Often you pick up either within the lesson itself or afterwards when looking at pupils’ work that pupils have begun to learn whatever it is you are teaching them. However, you don’t have enough evidence yet that this learning is really secure and won’t be immediately forgotten the moment you move onto something new. Better consolidate the learning by going over it again. Resist the siren voices telling you that if pupils can do something a couple of times they need to move on to new learning. That’s just madness. Vaguely understanding something is not the same as really knowing it. Progress does not always involve learning new stuff. Often it involves learning ‘old’ stuff more securely.

3. Redraft – they can do this better. I need to model how to improve it.

This sort of response is typically used when responding to longer writing tasks. But expecting children to be able to make things better without showing them how is pointless.  It’s a bit like rushing to do your photocopying only to find the ‘paper jam’ and ‘change toner’ lights flashing at you. The lights are giving you, the learner, very specific feedback, but unless you already know how to clear a paper jam, where the toner is stored and how on earth you change it, it is not going to be any use. In fact, it will probably just wind you up. Dylan William mentions some written feedback that told a pupil to ‘be more systematic in your scientific enquiries.’ To which the pupil’s response was, ‘if I knew how to be more systematic, I would have done it the first time.’

What we now do instead of marking longer writing tasks is to devote a whole lesson to whole class feedback. During this, the teacher showcases small extracts – possibly just a sentence or two – where various pupils have done a particular thing very well.  So for example, they might share some well punctuated speech, then some excellent description, a great use of rhetorical questioning and the deft use of a range of sentence lengths to build suspense. Pupils may or may not work together on improving fictional examples where the particular thing is lacking immediately after the good example has been shared. Then teacher will then go on to share (anonymously of course) some examples – probably slightly tweaked, of brief extracts that could do with improving in some way. Usually teachers type up these sentences, rather than use a visualiser because first of all it’s easier to read and secondly it gives the teacher the chance to correct all but the actual mistake s/he wants pupils to focus on. Otherwise, pupils might fixate on incorrect spelling when you want them to focus on mixing up tenses, for example. Pupils then get short examples with similar errors to practise improving (usually in pairs). Finally, after this sustained quality modelling and practice, the children redraft their own work.[2]

This works really well. The children love their feedback lessons. They make great progress. And teacher workload has been cut by at least two thirds when compared to marking, even factoring in the need to plan a feedback lesson. Whereas marking one set of books used to take three hours, the whole process now takes about an hour. And it’s more effective.

4. Practice – they can do this but it is not yet automatic

This is different from revising (see point 2 above).  This is about practising things we know how to do but have not yet learnt to automaticity. So this might include being able to use a standard algorithm to do vertical subtraction, for example, or times tables, or number bonds, or converting measures from one unit to another, or revising key vocabulary or handwriting or a forming a stroke correctly when swimming.

5. Check – I need more information before I am convinced they really have this securely

This is when you want feedback about if pupils really know something securely, at some remove from the initial teaching. So it usually involves giving children questions to do at least a month after that original teaching has taken place. Can they still do fractions now we’ve moved on to area? Can they remember anything about the Romans now we are learning about the Vikings? And if not, what am I going to do about it? (If you are not going to do anything about it regardless, there is no point in checking, unless you like making yourself depressed).

And finally

6. Move on to something new

Sometimes feedback tells you good news. They’ve got it! We can move on to something new.

So that’s a whistle-stop tour through responsive teaching.  Harry Fletcher Wood has just published a book called ‘Responsive Teaching: Cognitive Science and Formative Assessment in practice’ that I would strongly recommend if you want to look at this in a lot more detail. But what does this have to do with the second part of my title? What has all this got to do with responsive leadership? Well it turns out that responsive leadership is a lot like responsive teaching. Like marking, doing termly high stakes lesson observations can actually make things worse, rather than better. The problem with this kind of lesson observation is that they lead to teachers showcasing compliance, rather than their warts-and-all, everyday practice. Instead, you observe lots of all singing, all dancing lessons quite unlike everyday practice that are therefore useless for helping people talk about how they might further improve their teaching. What a monumental waste of time!

Responsive leadership is

  • Looking at teachers’ work, either within the lesson or after it,[3] and responding to what you find out.
  • Gathering feedback for the leader, about teaching
  • Using this feedback to decide what professional development is most appropriate

In the context of lesson observations, feedback used to be something potentially ominous delivered to the observed teacher, some sort of label denoting their professional worth.  This is nonsense. In the same way that feedback about pupils should feed forward into planning future lessons, feedback about teaching tells leaders what should feed forward into planning future professional development. In the same way teachers need to think about what is the bottleneck holding children back, leaders need to reflect upon what it is that is stopping a teacher from teaching as well as possible, and then plan a course of action – usually in partnership with the teacher –  to help them improve.

And guess what, here are 6 possible ways to respond to what you’ve learnt from gathering feedback.

  1. Reteach

You know that feeling when you’ve delivered some inset on the latest whole school initiative and then you go and observe lessons and realise that almost everybody has either got the wrong end of the stick, or isn’t implementing the initiative at all? (No? Maybe just me then). Anyway, should that happen, here are some things to reflect upon

  • Maybe I didn’t explain this initiative properly
  • So either they don’t ‘get’ it…
  • Or don’t understand why it is important
  • Or possibly both
  • So I need to explain it better and persuade people why it is important
  • Did I explain what they can now stop doing?
  • If anyone is to blame, it is me
  • (Or maybe it’s an unworkable initiative or a seriously bad idea)
  1. Revise

This time when you see how the initiative is working out in practice, you find out that some people who were doing this really well seemed to have forgotten all about it. So ask yourself…

  • I need to remind them about this, and why it is important, before it fades away, like so many previous initiatives that were quietly forgotten, rather than explicitly stopped. I need to emphasise that this one is important. I really mean it this time!
  • Ask why it is fading? Forgotten? Not useful? Tricky? Logistics?
  • Spend quality time going over it again in a staff  or departmental meeting
  • Pupils aren’t the only ones who need time to work on remembering things. Retrieval practice is useful for teachers as well as pupils!
  1. Redraft – they can sort of do this, but it could be better.
  • They’ve half got this
  • We need to provide modelling of how to do it better and supportively coach people as they learn how to do this
  1. Practice

There are some techniques in teaching, such as giving clear explanations, specific behaviour management techniques, and various ‘Teach Like a Champion’ techniques such as ‘no opt out’ ‘cold calling’ etc. that are highly amenable to improvement through deliberate practice. With specific, deliberate practice, things become habitual, and no longer need conscious effort to remember to do. Some schools devote the first 20 minutes of staff or departmental meetings to deliberately practising specific techniques.

  1. Check

We need to ask ourselves about key initiatives

  • Is this really embedded across the school 3 months later, 6 months later, a year later?
  • Is this as secure as I like to think it is?

And finally

  1. Move on to something new

A cherished initiative is now part of the life blood of the school. Everyone does it, and does it well. If we need to, we could now introduce something else, without worrying that this will fade away.  But we need to remember newcomers to the school who missed out on the concerted effort it took to get everybody to understand why this was important and how to do it well. If it took a year for staff to really get this, don’t expect new staff to get it after a 10 minute briefing.  When something is automatic, or obvious, remember those who join the school sometime after the initiative was introduced. It probably won’t be obvious to them.

In the same way that ‘You need to be more systematic in planning your scientific inquiries,’ is not terribly helpful to a pupil who doesn’t know what this actually involves, teachers who aren’t doing the sort of things we want them to be doing probably just don’t understand what we mean and need some modelling and coaching, opportunities to observe others alongside someone who can provide a commentary, and time to practise.

And instead of termly high stakes lesson observations, try using more frequent, low stakes, developmental observations that are all about genuinely helping staff get better at what they do, rather than finding fault. Our model is as follows:

  • Senior leaders do low stakes, 10 minute ‘drop ins’ most weeks
  • Subject leaders do lesson-long modelling, team teaching and coaching
  • We bring books to staff meetings a lot
  • Also look at books in SLT meetings
  • Staff meeting timetable flexible and responsive
  • We revisit previous inset a couple of months after (spaced practice!)

I’ve written a blog about our approach before for thirdspace learning.

When I started in headship, in somewhat inauspicious circumstances, someone told me to remember that your staff team is just like your class. You will have well behaved ones and challenging ones, people who learn things really easily and ones that need more support and so on. Using feedback to help children learn is not really very different from using feedback to help adults learn.  Don’t rely on ritualistic responses; seek evidence with an open mind, have a good think about it and plan the best way to respond.






























[1] Kluger A, DeNisi A. The effects of feedback interventions on performance: A historical review, a meta-analysis, and a preliminary feedback intervention theory. Psychological Bulletin. 1996;119(2):254–84.

[2] The process is a little more complicated than I’ve explained as for brevity’s sake I’ve left out the finer details. We usually divide the lesson into a proof reading part (changing those things that make our writing harder for someone to enjoy reading) and then a longer editing session (making our writing even more interesting for a reader). In ks1, we mainly to proof reading with a hint of editing. In year 1, in the main, pupils proof read fictional ‘work’ written by the teacher rather than their own.  We also give fictional work to pupils of any age who have something very specific to work on, that few other pupils need (or are ready for).

[3] By looking at work and/or by talking to pupils

Responsive teaching, responsive leadership