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

The highs and lows of knowledge organisers: an end of year report

In January, after one term of us using knowledge organisers, I posted this blog about how our experiment with them was going. 6 months later, the academic year over, I thought it might be useful to share my reflections upon what we’ve learnt along the way.  Since January, the importance of schools taking a good, long look at the curriculum they offer has really come to the fore, thanks to those trend setters down at Ofsted Towers. Amanda Spielman’s talk at the Festival of Education underlined what Sean Harford has been talking (and tweeting) about all year – stop obsessing about data (sort of) and the inevitable narrow focus on English and maths that necessitates[1], the curriculum is where it is at these days guys. So there is a lot of waking up and smelling the coffee going on as we begin to realise just how iconoclastic this message really is.  The ramifications are huge and startling. It’s a bit like the emperor with no clothes suddenly berates us for our poor fashion sense. We feel indignant (the data nonsense was Ofsted driven after all), pleased (we always wanted a broader curriculum), terrified (are asking to have their cake and eat it – schools side-lined the rest of the curriculum for a reason and not on a whim – how possible is it to really go for quality in the other subjects when getting good sats /gcse results is still such a monumental struggle?) and woefully ill-prepared.

I’m going to focus on the ‘pleased’ bit. It’s not that I don’t share the indignation and the terror. The indignation we will just have to get over. A broader curriculum will only happen if Ofsted want a broader curriculum – such is the power they wield – so let’s try and move on from the exasperation we feel when the curriculum poachers turn curriculum gamekeepers. As for the terror, let’s keep on letting Amanda and Sean know why we are so scared. I wrote another blog a while back about the triple constraint – the idea (from engineering project management) that the three variables of time, cost and scope (a term which embraces both quality and performance specification) are constrained by one another.  If you wish to increase the scope of a project by wanting quality in a broader range of areas than previously, then that will inevitably either cost you more time or more money. Time in education is relatively inelastic.  We can’t just deliver the ‘project’ later.  We can’t say we will get high standards across all areas of the curriculum by doing our GCSE’s when the ‘children’ are 20 (though this school did try something along those lines. It didn’t end well.)  So that leaves spending more on our project as the only other option. Mmmm, few problems with that.

But I digress. Back to being pleased. I am really pleased. After all, we started on revamping our ‘afternoon’ subjects well before Ofsted started banging on about this. We did so not because of Ofsted but because a) developments from cognitive science make a very strong case for ensuring children are explicitly taught knowledge if they are to become critical thinkers and creative problem solvers and b) children are entitled to a knowledge-rich curriculum.  I have become convinced of the moral duty to provide our children with a curriculum that ensures that they get their fair share of the rich cultural inheritance our nation and our world affords, an inheritance hitherto seen as the birth right of the rich and not the poor.

By sharing our experience so far, I hope I can save other schools some time (that precious commodity) by helping them avoid making the mistakes we did when we rolled out knowledge organisers and multiple choice quizzes last September.

A quick recap about what we did. We focused on what I am going to call ‘the big four’ i.e. the 4 ‘foundation’[2] subjects: history, geography, RE and science.  In July 2016 I shared some knowledge organisers from other schools with the staff – almost all from secondary schools as I could only find one example from a primary school at that point. Staff then attempted to write their own for these 4 subjects for the coming academic year.  It seemed to me at the time that this would be a relatively straight forward thing to do. I was wrong but more of that later. Our afternoon curriculum had been timetables into 3 week blocks, with strict cut offs one the 3 weeks had elapsed. This worked extremely well. It tightened planning – much less faff – much more deciding up front what really mattered, hitting the ground running with specific coverage in mind. It gave an excitement to the learning. Neither the children nor the teacher got bored by a topic that drifted on and on, just because that half term was quite long. It also meant that subjects did not fall off the edge of the school year never taught because people had run out of time. I would highly recommend this way of structuring the delivery of most of the foundation subjects. Obviously it doesn’t work for PE (though a good case can be made for doing it in swimming), MFL or PHSE, which need to be done at least weekly, but that still leaves at least 3 afternoons for the other stuff.

The weekend before each block started, the children took home the knowledge organiser for the new block.  The idea being that they read the KO, with their parents help where necessary. Then on Monday, the teacher started to teach them the content, some of which some of them would have already read about at the weekend. The next weekend, the KO’s went home again, along with a multiple choice quiz based on it, the answers to which were all (in theory) in the KO. These didn’t have to be given in and the scores were not recorded, although in some classes children stuck the KO and each quiz in a homework book.  The same procedure was repeated on the second weekend of the block. Then on the final Friday of each block, a multiple choice quiz was done and marked in class. The teacher took notice of the scores but we didn’t track them on anything. This is something we are changing this September with a very simple excel spreadsheet to record just the final end of unit quiz score.

Since we didn’t have KO’s for computing, art or DT, I suggested that during these curriculum blocks, children should take home the KO from a previous block and revise that and then do a quiz on it at the end of the art (or whatever) block. The ideas being that by retrieving the knowledge at some distance from when it was originally taught, the testing effect would result in better long term recall.  However, as it was a suggestion and I didn’t really explain about the testing effect and teachers are busy and the curriculum over full, it just didn’t happen. From this September, I’ve explicitly specified what needs to be revisited when in our curriculum map. Towards the end of last year, I also gave over some staff meeting and SMT time to studying cognitive psychology and this will continue next term with the revamp of our teaching and learning policy which is being rewritten with the best insights from cognitive science explicitly in mind.

Then, in the dying days of term, in mid July, the children took an end of year quiz in each of the 4 subjects which mixed up questions from all the topics they had studied that year. In the two weeks prior to this, children had revised from a mega KO, in effect a compilation of all previous KO’s and quizzes that year. They had revised this in lessons (particularly helpful at the end of term when normal service in interrupted by special events, hand over meetings and so forth) and at the weekend for homework. It hadn’t really been my intention to do this at the start of the year, but I confess to being a bit spooked by Ofsted reports that had (the lack of) assessment in the foundation subjects down as a key issue, something I wrote about here.  But having done so, I think it is a good idea. For one, it gives the children another chance to revisit stuff they’ve learnt several months previously, so improving the likelihood that they will be able to recall this information in the longer term.  Secondly, it gives these subjects status. We did the tests after our reports were written and parents meetings held. Next year I want to get the end of year scores (just a simple mark out of 10 or 15) on reports and shared with parents.  The results from the end of year tests were interesting. In the main, almost all children did very well. Here are the results, expressed as average class percentages. I’m not going to tell you which year group is which as my teachers might rightly feel a bit perturbed about this, so I’ve mixed up the order here, but it represents year groups 2-6.

History RE Science Geography
86% 93% 85% 84%
79% 85% 91% 82%
83% 95% 87% n/a
75% 75% 67% 74%
70% 76% 66% n/a

One class was still studying their geography block when we took the tests and another did Ancient Egypt as mixed geography/history block, geography coming off somewhat the worse in this partnership, something I may not have noticed without this analysis, and which we are now changing for next year.

From this I notice that we seem to be doing something right in RE and that by contrast, science isn’t as strong.  The tests threw up some common errors; for example, children confusing evaporation and condensation, something we can make sure we work on. Looking at the class with the lowest results, it is striking that the average is depressed by a few children scoring really badly (4 out of 10, 5 out of 15) but these are not the children with SEN but generally children with whom we already have concerns about their attitude to learning.  All the more reason to share these results with their parents.

Even so, the lowest score here is 66%, and that is without doing any recap once the block has finished until the very end of the year, something we will do next year.  I don’t have anything to compare these results with but my gut instinct is that in previous years, children would be hard pressed to remember 2/3’s of what they had learnt that year, let alone remembering 95% of it. As Kirschner and co remind us, if nothing has  been changed in the long term memory, nothing has been learned.[3] Or as Joe Kirby puts it ‘learning is remembering in disguise.’  So next year, I’d like us to aim for average around the 90% mark – mainly achieved by going back over tricky or easily confused content and by keeping a close eye on the usual suspects. Are they actually doing their revision at home?

So, after that lengthy preamble, what are the main pitfalls when using KO’s and MCQ’s for the first time.

  1. Deciding which knowledge makes it onto a KO is hard, particularly in history and sometimes RE. One teacher did a KO on Buddhism that had enough information for a degree! In general, the less you know about something, the harder it is to make judicious choices because you simply do not know what is and isn’t really important. In science it is pretty easy, go to BBC bitesize for the relevant topic and use that. For history you actually have to decide how to cut a vast topic down to size. Who will do this deciding? The class teacher, the subject co-ordinator, the SLT or the head teacher? For what it’s worth I’d start with the class teacher so they own the learning, but make sure that is scrutinised by someone else, someone who understands what is at stake here[4]. Quite a few primary schools have developed KO’s this year, so look at these and adapt from there, rather than starting from scratch. I’m going to put ours on @Mr_P_Hillips one once I’ve removed any copyright infringing images. It’s one thing using these images on something just used in one school, quite another putting these up on the web. There are some up already by other people, so do take a look. I definitely think this hive-mind approach ton developing KO’s at primary level is the way ahead.  We are unlikely to have subject specialists for all the subjects in the curriculum in our individual schools, let alone ones who are up to date with the latest debates about makes for a good curriculum. However, by combining forces across the edu-twittersphere, I’m sure we can learn from each other, refining each other’s early attempts until we get something we know is really good. We’ve revised ours twice this year, once in January after a term of writing ones that were too long and then again in July with the benefit of hindsight
  2. Seems obvious but…if you are using quizzes, make sure the answers are in the KO! Someone – a secondary school teacher I think – tweeted a while back that KO’s are only KO’s if they can help children self-quiz. I think he was alluding to the grid sort of KO that looks like this (here’s an extract)
When did the ancient Greeks live? about 3,000 years ago
When was Greek civilisation was most powerful Between 800 BC and 146 BC.
Ancient Greece was not a single country but was made up of many city states
Some examples of city states are Athens, Spartan and Corinth
City states used to fight each other a lot. But if enemies not from Greece attacked they all joined together to fight back
The first city states started About 800 BC
All Greeks Spoke the same language and worshipped the same gods.
Ancient Greece is sometimes called the ‘cradle of Western civilisation’
Cradle of Western civilisation means The place where European culture all started
The climate in Greece is Warm and dry
In ancient Greece most people earned their living by Farming, fishing and trade
The two most powerful city states were Athens and Sparta


As opposed to the same information presented as continuous prose like this.

The ancient Greeks lived about 3,000 years ago

Greek civilisation was most powerful between 800 BC and 146 BC.

Ancient Greece was not a single country but was made up of many city states such as Athens, Spartan and Corinth; but all Greeks spoke the same language and worshipped the same gods.

City states used to fight each other a lot. But if enemies who were not from Greece attacked, they all joined together to fight back.

Ancient Greece has been called ‘the cradle of Western civilisation’ because writing, art, science, politics, philosophy and architecture in Europe all developed from Greek culture.

Ancient Greece had a warm, dry climate, as Greece does today. Most people lived by farming, fishing and trade

The idea with the grid being that children cover one half and write the answers (or questions) as a way of revising.  I get this for secondary children but it doesn’t seem suitable for primary aged children – especially the younger ones. The grid is just too forbidding to read. And we don’t expect them to write out answers for homework to check themselves. Again for younger children that would turn it into such as chore rather something we have found our children actually like doing.  Maybe we might develop a grid alongside the continuous prose? (I did both for Ancient Greece to see which worked better, but went for the prose version in the end).  Maybe for years 5 and 6 only?

When we audited the KO’s against the quizzes we found that the quizzes sometimes asked questions that weren’t on the KO! We spend a couple of staff meetings putting that right so I think that’s all sorted now, but if you spot any omissions when I finally do post our KO’s and quizzes, do let me know. Keep thinking hive mind.

  1. If you think KO’s are hard to write, wait until you try to write quizzes! The key to a good mcq is that the other answers – the distractors as they are known in the trade, are suitably plausible. Maybe some of our high scores were down to implausible distractors? However a really good distractor can help you spot misconceptions so are really useful formatively.

Polar explores (year 4,  joint history/geography topic)

Question Answer A Answer B Answer C
Which one of these is NOT a continent? North America Europe Russia
Which on of these is NOT  a country? Argentina Africa Hungary
Pemmican is… an animal that lives in water and has wings. high energy food made of meat and fat. high energy food made out of fish and protein.
Great Britain is surrounded by water so it is an.. island Ireland continent
If you travel north east from the U.K you will reach… Norway Belgium Austria
Shackleton’s ship was called… The Antarctica The Elephant The Endurance
When did Henson and Peary make a mad dash for the North Pole? 1909 1609 1979


I think this example has good distractors. I particularly like the way the common misconception that Africa is a country is addressed. With the dates, you may argue that children are using deduction rather than recall. I don’t think at this point that is a problem. Besides the fact that by having to think about the question their recall will have been strengthened anyway, we all know hard it is for children to develop a sense of time. 2009 was the year many of year 4 were born so if they think that happened a mere 40 years before they were born – when possibly their teacher was already alive, then we know their sense of chronology is still way out. But I would hope that most children would automatically dismiss this date and then be faced with a choice between 1609 and 1909. Some will just remember 1909 of course. But others might reason that since that 1609 is a really long time ago before the Fire of London whereas 1909 is only just over 100 years ago and appreciate that while the story is set in the past, it’s not that long ago and the technology needed to make the voyage far outstripped that around even in 1666. On the other hand, if the can reason that well about history they probably already know it was 1909! When at primary level we try to get children to remember dates, it is in order to build up their internal time line and relate events relative to one another. By the time children study this in year 4, they have previously learnt about the Magna Carta, Fire of London, the Crimean War and World War 1 (yr 2 ‘nurses’ topic on Florence Nightingale, Mary Seacole and Edith Cavell), the Stone Age, The Iron Age, Ancient Egypt, the Romans, the Anglo Saxons and the Vikings as well as knowing that Jesus was born 2017 years ago (and hopefully beginning to understand BC and why the numbers go backwards). I would hope they would be able to group these into a sequence that was roughly accurate – that’s something else we should develop some assessments for. Elizabeth Carr and Christine Counsell explored this with ks3 children; I’m going to adapt it for ks2 next year.

  1. I had hoped to bring all the KO’s and quizzes together into a nicely printed and bound book ready for revision before the final end of year assessments. In fact, ideally this booklet would be ready at the start of next year, so that children could revise from it at spare moments –not only at home and during specific revision lessons, but also when they had a supply teacher for example (for part of the day) , or in those odd 20 minute slots you sometimes get after a workshop has finished or before it starts. I wanted it to be properly printed and spiral bound to look ‘posh’ and look important. However, I really underestimated how much paper all this generates. There was I worrying we weren’t covering enough content – when we gathered it all together it took up 36.4MB. The price for getting a hard copy printed for each child (for their year group only) came to over £1500 – well beyond our budget. So a member of the admin team spent a whole day photocopying everything. By copying stuff back to back we were able to make it slim enough for the photocopier to staple. These were then put into those A4 see-through plastic pouches – we call them ‘slippery fish’ at our school.  They didn’t have anywhere near the gravitas that I’d hoped for – stapled at one corner only with pages inevitably tearing off. The teachers didn’t let them home until the final weekend because they were scared they would get lost. So much for the lovely idea that we would present leavers with a bound copy of all the KO’s and quizzes they had since year 2. So unless you have a friendly parent in the printing business or can get someone to sponsor you – be prepared for a low tech, photocopier intensive solution. In hindsight if every class had had a homework book the KO’s and quizzes went into as we went along, that would have been problem solved.

So there we have it. The top tip is to learn from what is already out there, adapting and honing what others have already done. Then please share back.

[1] I’m talking from a primary perspective here. The message to secondary schools being similar, but more along the lines of ‘forget your PiXL box of magic tricks and start making sure your kids are really learning important stuff.’

[2] Yes, I know, officially RE and science are ‘core’ subjects. They are not really though, in practice, are they. That’s partly what Amanda and Sean are getting at

[3] Kirschner A., Sweller J. and Clark E., 2006. Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work: An Analysis of the Failure of Constructivist, Discovery, Problem-Based, Experiential, and Inquiry-Based Teaching, Educational Psychologist, 41(2), p77

[4] I had intended to write about what is at stake in this blog but its long enough already. Another time, maybe. I do talk about the issues in my intial blog on KO’s mentioned at the start though, if you are looking for help .

The highs and lows of knowledge organisers: an end of year report

Are ‘knowledge’ and ‘understanding’ really the same thing?

David Didau has just posted a very interesting blog on just this question.  He argues that yes, understanding is actually the very same thing as knowledge; to say that you know something is exactly the same as saying you understand it.

Now I can hear one thousand voices screaming ‘No! No! No!’ and arguing back saying that just because you know that, or can parrot that, 6×7=42 does not mean that you understand it. At all. QED.  Such is the absolute aversion in education to ‘meaningless’ or ‘disembodied’ or ‘dry’ or ‘shallow’ retention of facts as opposed to ‘deep’ understanding, that our automatic rebuttal mode is activated.

But please let me explain.

What does it mean to understand 6×7=42?  I would suggest it means knowing lots of other things too and connecting them together. For example, knowing that 6×7 can be expressed pictorially as an array.

Knowing that 6×7 can be expressed as a bar model.

Knowing that 6×7 is the same as 6+6+6+6+6+6+6

Knowing how to model this on a numberline

Knowing how to model this with cubes

Knowing that all of these examples are equal to the same representations or equations as 7×6

Knowing that 6×7 is the same as 3×6 + 4×6

Knowing how to draw an array to show this

Knowing that 6×7= 7×7-7 and so on.

Every example of ‘knowing’ here could be replace by ‘understanding’ – the two words are interchangeable.

If we know all of these things, we can reasonably be described as knowing what 6×7 means. We understand it. The fact 6×7 is connected to lots of other associated facts.  That’s what understanding is: a load of knowledge connected together. Knowing 6×7 as an isolated fact isn’t very useful; connect it together with all this other information, other knowledge and – voilà – we have our holy grail: deep understanding. AKA knowledge.

So the key here is making sure the individual, ’disembodied’ facts are linked together.  Because teachers have this fear of ‘shallow’ learning, teaching approaches have been drawn up that try and enable ‘deep’ learning from the start.  The problem with this is that the road to deep learning is via shallow learning. You can’t leapfrog over it.  Knowledge becomes ‘deep’ or ‘rich’ or whatever adjective you wish to modify it with when it is connected to other bits of knowledge, but obviously you have to start somewhere. You can’t start with a connection. That would be like trying to build a bridge by building the road before the piers. Shallow knowledge is a necessary step on the way to deep knowledge. We can’t have deep, connected knowledge without remembering a lot of information.

Of course, you could argue that it is useful to reserve the word ‘understanding’ for connected knowledge and retain ‘knowledge’ or ‘knowing’ for shallow knowledge.  The point is though that understanding is not some mystical other thing beyond knowledge; it is lots of associated knowledge stuck together in a schema.

Who does the sticking, the teacher or the student?

Teachers want above all things for knowledge to be connected, for learners to ‘get it’, to understand it, to link different aspects together meaningfully.  So they will try really hard to design sequences of lessons that make the connections as explicit as possible. That’s what variation theory in maths is all about[1] .  The concrete, pictorial, abstract approach is another way maths teachers enable children to make those all-important connections.   Here’s the thing though.  You can’t brute force connections, however hard you try. [2]  And of course we should try (though not the force bit).  We should try really, really hard.  Those connections are much more likely to be made if they are made absolutely explicit, and if teachers really think about all the little in between bits of knowledge we assume children already have, but in fact might not.  For example, to return to 6×7, some children may not have really understood what a ‘group’ of something is: that you can call 6 things, 1 thing. Without this knowledge, 6×7 won’t make sense to them. A vital connection is missing.  They are more likely to think the answer should be 13, making a more familiar connection, albeit to the wrong thing.  Sometimes wrong connections are made.  Students have false knowledge: knowledge that is wrongly connected.  They don’t understand.  The teacher’s job is to be aware of the likely false connections (misconceptions) and explain carefully so that the right connections are made instead.

Learners themselves cannot force themselves to connect disparate bits of information, even if they know the teacher says they are connected.  The brain just does the connecting – or not – independently of either the teacher’s or learner’s desires. Although of course learners can help matters along a great deal by thinking hard about the things they are trying to connect and teachers can plan their lessons to make sure as much hard thinking about the right things as possible takes place.  My suspicion is though that where students just don’t seem to ‘get it’ it is because some intermediate knowledge is missing that just seems so obvious to us relatively ‘expert’ teachers that we fail to teach it. Either that or because the thing we have just taught is hopelessly entangled with the wrong bits of other knowledge in ways we would never guess so can’t untangle. Or probably both.

Any mistakes in this explanation are of course mine rather than David Didau’s.

[1] See appendix 4. Note how this starts with contrasting memorisation with understanding and the expression of surprise that East Asian countries which major on teacher-led didactic approaches outperform Western countries where such methods are seen as inferior, this apparent paradox is explained by reference to the routine use of ‘variation’ in East Asian didactic teaching.  The teacher explicitly draws attention to connected features.  It’s not that didactic teaching per se is ineffective, it’s when it is done badly, in a way that does not exploit every opportunity to make those connections.

[2] I think this is where the suspicion of so called ‘traditionalist’ ways of teaching kicks in. Teachers worry that this means trying to force knowledge into children’s minds by blitzing them remorselessly with facts as if that was a failsafe solution to learning. Whereas the traditionalist would explain their approach as rich in factual information, but factual information presented in a sequence in which inordinate care has been taken to maximise the probability that the right connections are made (variation) and with similar care also taken to ensure it is broken down into small enough steps that essential prior knowledge is not overlooked.

Are ‘knowledge’ and ‘understanding’ really the same thing?

Beyond the blame game –  the trouble with transfer

It’s a laugh a minute in the Sealy household at dinner as two teachers swap amusing anecdotes about their day while our sons listen on enthralled. Yes, I’m lying. The sons are sticking pins in their eyes in a vain effort to MAKE IT STOP while we drone on to each other about the trials and tribulations of our respective days.  My partner is a maths intervention teacher and trainer who mainly spends his time training other teachers and TA’s how to teach maths to children who are struggling.  The interventions he trains people in are all very effective and have tonnes of evidence to back them up (albeit too expensive to staff for most of us in these cash-strapped times when having a class teacher and the lights on at the same time is considered a luxury). Among his top ten moans[1] is the situation when class teachers fail to recognise that ex-intervention students are now actually quite good at maths, instead seating them in the 7th circle of hell that is ‘orange table’, where there might as well be a sign saying ‘despair all who enter here’ and where the cognitive challenge is low.  When the intervention teacher tries to argue their case, the class teacher, who does not consider their colleague to be a ‘real’ teacher, argues that ‘she might be able to do place value (or whatever) with you, but she can’t do it in the class room where it really matters.’  The unspoken assumption being that intervention teachers – who are not real teachers anyway – don’t really know what they are doing and are easily tricked into thinking that a child has got something because they’ve played a nice game with their not-real teacher who doesn’t understand about important things like Sats and tests and being at the expected level and obviously couldn’t hack it in the classroom. Indeed, a quite senior teacher, worried for her value added, once said to him that he ‘artificially inflated’ pupils learning by teaching them stuff.   To which he countered that all teaching ‘artificially’ inflates learning – that’s what we’re paid to do! We are employed to use artifice to achieve learning.

It occurred to me recently that cognitive science provides an explanation as to why this conflict happens; an explanation that blames neither teacher and also explains equally well why every September, class teachers shake their heads in disbelief at the assessment information provided by their colleague,  the former teacher, a disbelief that is amplified on the transfer from primary to secondary school.

Transferring learning is, quite simply, a bitch.  There are three cognitive hurdles to overcome on the journey from the pupil’s first encounter with an idea to them being able to understand whatever it is in a flexible and adaptable way. First, they need to be presented with the idea in an understandable way that make them think hard[2] about what they are learning. If they think hard about it, it is more likely to make that all important journey from their short term memory to their long term memory. Sometimes teachers try and make ideas memorable by making them exciting in some way. This can backfire if the ‘exciting’ medium becomes more memorable than the actual message the teacher wants to get across. I recall one child who was finding learning to count really tricky, so to engage him we used gold paper plates and toy dinosaurs. He was totally absorbed, but not on the maths, unfortunately – and did much better with plain paper plates and cubes.  But hurdle one is not where the intervention vs class teacher fault line lays.

The second hurdle lies in overcoming the ‘I’ve taught it therefore they know it’ fallacy, particularly common among less experienced teachers.  But even if our panoply of afl strategies tell us that a particular child has grasped a particular concept, it is highly likely that by the next day they will have forgotten most of what we taught them. That is just how our brains work. But that does not mean we labour in vain; the forgetting is an important part of remembering.  The forgotten memory is not really forgotten, it’s floating about somewhere in our long term memory, ready to be reactivated. All it takes is for us to re-teach the information and on second encounter, the material is learned much faster. By the next week it is all mostly forgotten again but with a third presentation, the material is learned very quickly indeed.  And so on.  Each time we forget something, we relearn it more quickly and retain it for longer.

This means that teachers need to build into our lessons routine opportunities to revisit material we taught the day before, the week before, the month before, the term before and the year before.  This is known in the trade as ‘spaced repetition.’  Each time we do so, we enhance the storage strength of memories. Ignorance of this phenomenon accounts for part of the professional friction between colleagues. It wasn’t wishful thinking on behalf of the ‘sending’ teacher.  The pupil genuinely did really know how to partition 2-digit numbers, for example, but has now forgotten. That’s an inevitable part of how our brains work and not some other professional’s ‘fault’.  When faced with a conflict between what it is reported that a student can do and what they appear actually able to do, the most charitable and scientifically probable explanation is that they have forgotten how to do something that they once could do well; with a bit of input it will all come back fairly quickly. If we remind ourselves on this each September and expect to have to cover a lot of ‘old’ ground, that will be better for our students, for our blood pressure and for professional relationships.

However, hurdle number three has, to my mind, the best explanatory power for this aggravating situation.  To understand this, I will have to explain the difference between episodic and semantic memory.  Episodic memory remembers…episodes…events….experiences. It is autobiographical, composed of memories of times, places and emotions and derived from information from our 5 senses.  Semantic memory is memory of facts, concepts, meanings and knowledge, cut free from the spatial/temporal context in which it was acquired.  Generally, especially where teaching is concerned, memories start off as episodic and then with lots of repetition, particularly in different contexts with different sensory cues, the memory becomes semantic and can be recalled in any context. This is the destination we want all learning to arrive at.

So when we learn something new, we remember it episodically at first.   We’ve all had those lessons when we remind our class about the previous lesson and they can recall, in minute detail, that Billy farted, but not what an adverb is.  Or they’ll remember that you spilled your coffee or that Samira was late or even that ‘we used highlighter pens.’  But anything actually important…gone!  Of course, when you recap on yesterday’s lesson, it will all come flooding back.  See hurdle two.  However, the problem for transferring this knowledge beyond working with this teacher in this classroom is that with episodic memories, environmental and emotional cues are all important.  Take these cues away and the memory is hard to recall. We don’t want a situation, for many reasons, where our children can only recall what an adverb is if prompted by the environmental cue provided from Billy’s posterior.  We are a proud profession, we aim a little bit higher than that. We want what we teach to be transferable to any context.  Until that has occurred, how can we say learning has successfully happened?

So, back to our maths intervention teacher. The pupil has learnt a whole heap of maths and made many months of progress in a short space of time.  However, although their teacher has got them to think hard about this material and got them to apply their new knowledge in many different situations, and although the teacher has also used the principles of spaced repetition and revisited previously taught material many times, there is still the very real possibility that the memory of some of this material is still mainly episodic, still mainly dependent on familiar environmental cues for recall.  It is not that the child is emotionally dependent on the familiar adult to boost their confidence – thought that can also happen – but that the academic memory is bundled with the sound and sight (and possibly, the coffee breath of) their intervention teacher and the room in which the intervention happened.  Without these, the memory is inaccessible.

This problem is only exaggerated when the transfer is from one year group to another – with the added difficulty that the student is unlikely to have been doing much hard thinking about either denominators or adverbs over the six weeks summer holiday. It is even more of a barrier when students are transferring to a completely different school, such as at secondary transfer, with all the other attendant changes that brings.

To counter this, when teaching material, we need to try and play about with the environmental conditions to lessen the impact of context cues. So when an intervention teacher asks to come and work in class alongside a pupil as part of their weaning off intervention, that is not some namby pamby special snow flake treatment by a teacher who clearly is too attached to their pupils, but a strategy rooted in cognitive science to help the pupil access episodic memories with most of the familiar context cues removed. Class teachers can try and break the dependence on context cues with material they teach by, at the very least, getting pupils to sit in different seats with different pupils from time to time.[3]  Year 6 teachers, now faced with the post sats quandary of what to teach now, would do well to teach nothing much new and instead ensure over learning of what pupils already know but within as many different  physical contexts as possible  – maths in the playground, or hall or even just by swapping classrooms for the odd lesson.  If pupils are used to sitting next to the same group of pupils in every lesson, now is the time to mix things up, to lessen the dependence on emotional cues (again, episodic) gained from the sense of familiarity of sitting with the same people day in, day out[4].

Transfer can also be facilitated by applying learning in different parts of the curriculum, using maths in DT for example, or in art lessons or maths through drama and also by applying the learning in open ended problem solving.  Indeed, the very sort of ‘progressive’ teaching strategies that card carrying traditionalists usually eschew, are fine for transfer, once the learning is securely understood, but probably still remembered episodically. It’s the use of these methods for the initial teaching of ideas that’s a bad idea – explicit teaching does that job so much better. Whizzy bangy stuff early on – or even in the middle – of a sequence of learning, runs the very real danger of getting children to think hard about the whizz bangs and not the content – so the whizz bangery will be what gets remembered in the episodic memory. See hurdle one. But that’s a whole other blog post.

Accepting the inevitability of the difficulties of transferring learning from one context to another can help us plan better for that and be less frustrated by it both in preparing to say goodbye to pupils in July and when saying hello to students in September.   It’s not that learning slumps as such in September, it’s that it is being reawakened and then transferred from episodic to semantic memory. Once memories have made this journey, they are so much stronger and more flexible, so worth the frustration.  So this September, when your new pupils don’t seem to be able to remember anything their assessment information would indicate they should know, take a deep breath, remember the three hurdles and that is just how learning and memory works. It probably isn’t their former teacher’s fault at all.  Maybe you just don’t smell right.

[1] Just in case a colleague of my partner is reading, he insists I make it abundantly clear this has not happened for a long while where he teaches. It does happen to some of the people he trains (in other schools) though – it is an occupational hazard of being an intervention teacher.

[2] Memory being the residue of thought, as Daniel Willingham explains in this book you really should read.

[3] I am relying heavily on chapter 6 of ‘What every teacher needs to know about psychology’ by David Didau and Nick Rose for all of this. This is also a very good book for teachers to read. If you read both this and the Willingham one above, you would be well set up.

[4] Not that I would recommend this in the first place, but if that is how you do things, shake them up for the last few weeks of term in the interest of better transfer

Beyond the blame game –  the trouble with transfer

Ofsted says…assessment and the foundation subjects

Whether Sean Harford is winning the war on excessive marking  remains to be seen, but I fear another edu-myth is in the making. A few days ago, a teacher I know remarked that the head of their outstanding school had returned from a heads’ briefing looking pale and anxious.  The briefing had included the warning that Ofsted were now looking for schools to assess all the  foundation subjects and woe betide any school that didn’t. For most head teachers, when you say ‘assessment’ of a subject, they see some sort of excel spreadsheet, full of colour coded figures, of the type we are used to having for maths, reading and writing. The amount of work it takes to test children, mark the tests, get the test data into a spreadsheet and then analyse that data is enormous. It can easily take me a whole weekend to analyse data in these three subjects in sufficient detail to be able to put it into a report for the standards and curriculum committee.  Said head teacher was blanching at the prospect at having to go through a similar process  for 10 other subjects. If that really was what Ofsted wanted, there really would be very little time to do anything else.

However, I knew that Sean Harford had specifically said otherwise. Here is a quote from a recent Ofsted report, brought to our attention thanks to @simonkidwell

ofsted foundation subs quote

The word ‘tracking’ in particular gives the impression of a spreadsheet with numbers, especially when the’ high standards’ of tracking English and maths are praised.  It looks like Ofsted – or at least this particular inspector and those who QA’ed him/her – really do want red, orange and green boxes with numbers in them. But rest assured, Sean says no.

seanharford tracking 1Seanharford 2 tracking fsseanharford 3

I suggest we all cut out and keep these tweets to wave at Ofsted inspectors as required. As long as assessment is to the same ‘standard’ as  used in English and maths, that’s cool.

Still worried?  What on earth does ‘to the same standard’ mean?  The Ofsted report links these assessments with school leaders and governors (which suggests we are talking about summative assessment; reporting data to show standard are bearing up and good progress is being made)  but also teachers (which points to formative assessment, or responsive teaching, as Dylan Wiliam now wishes he’d called it).  So, presumably our assessment of foundation subjects need to enable responsive teaching and enable others – governors or external visitors aka Ofsted – to hold us accountable for progress and standards for all areas of the curriculum. But not necessarily with numbers.

How then might this be possible without further burdening a workforce already acknowledged as staggering under a crushing workload?  As excessive marking leaves by the front door, are new accountability pressures to assess foundation subjects sneaking in by the back door?

I say ‘new’ because, honestly, I don’t know any school that currently does this. I tell a lie; I know one school where as a hoop jumping exercise they had a simple spreadsheet that RAG’ed children at the end of term in history, geography, RE and science.  They didn’t actually look at the children’s work in these subjects; they made the (probably fairly realistic) assumption that attainment in the humanities would match that in writing and attainment in science would match that in maths; so a simple cut-and-paste operation. Job done!  With the added bonus that whatever data analysis you did for writing was automatically already done for geography.  I would hope that were Sean Harford to read this, he would be screaming ‘NO! NO! NO!’  It’s a completely meaningless task, done with no other reason than to placate the accountability monster by giving them a delicious spreadsheet to chomp on.

If we are going to assess the foundation subjects properly, then we had better do it in a way that – here’s a wild suggestion – leads to children learning more effectively.  This means that  formative assessment – or responsive teaching as we all need to start calling it – must be the driver of any new policy.   But here’s the rub. If we discover that a group of students in year 4 have a dodgy understanding of place value, we will do something about it.  We might spend more time teaching that topic to the whole class, we might change our teaching to use more concrete apparatus,  we might get a TA to run an intervention group towards the end of the day or at lunch or after school, we might send work home to practice or find an app they can use at home. We have termly pupil progress meetings just to discuss such matters.   Imagine we had the same across the curriculum.   Imagine a  discussion bemoaning the fact that little Jimmy might know the 5 Pillars of Islam very well, but was hopeless with the 4 Noble Truths.   What would be do about it?  Say we discovered that a group of children had poor technique in shading with charcoal, would we suggest they came out of maths early three times a week to work with a TA on that?  Would we have after school booster lessons to improve children’s ability to put the events of the Roman occupation of Britain in chronological order.  Would we get children to work with their teaching on mapwork during assembly? Or send woodwork home for extra practise?  Probably not.  Responsive teaching is going to look very different in foundation subjects.  Unlike maths, where concepts  such as place value come up again and again, in history, for example, once the topic on the Ancient Greeks has finished, it’s unlikely to be revisited. If children do not know by the end of the topic the main differences between the Athenians and the Spartans – well that ship has sailed. Now they never will. (Well not on our watch anyway).

Responsive teaching (formerly known as afl)

We introduced knowledge organisers  (KO’s) this year.  By clearly identifying the key knowledge that we expect children to know by the end of a unit, this gives us a way in to assessing whether of not they have done so.  We teach most of our foundation subjects – including the ‘big 4’ of science, history, geography and RE in three week blocks. (Yes, I do know that science and RE are  officially ‘core’ subjects – I’m referring to their de facto status.)  Children  take home a multiple choice quiz  (mcq) each week to go through with their parents for homework with all the answers available on their KO.  Then at the end of the third and final week,  they do a third quiz in school.  This quiz assesses how much of the key knowledge they now know.  This mark (out of 10) is currently only recorded in their exercise book, but it would be very easy -and quick – to put it into a spreadsheet if that is the security blanket we feel we need. I confess that I am feeling that need.  Call me weak. For what is is worth, almost all children score 9 or 10 out of 10 after three weeks of study. But this is summative assessment, not responsive teaching; the unit is finishing as we test them.  If they  do score badly, we have no time left to do anything about it.

Other primary schools who have been experimenting with  KO’s have started each lesson with a very short mcq recapping the key knowledge from the previous lessons as a ‘do now’ activity.  We haven’t been doing this quite as formally, although most lessons start with an oral  recap of key vocabulary, so teachers have some idea if their teaching is resulting in actual learning.  But the ‘do now’ brief mcq is something we need to start doing, not least because we need to teach responsively; i.e. to use feedback from the children to adjust our teaching.  If  very few of the children remember what we learnt about yesterday or last week, we need to respond to that by revisiting that material rather than pressing on to the next idea. We would do this in maths (at least I hope we all would!) so why not in geography or RE?  If revisiting means we don’t cover all the material we were meant to, then so be it. It’s surely better that children actually remember some of the curriculum than cover all of it.

Some schools are also ending each unit with a piece of writing – a non chronological report – summing up what they have learnt over the course of the topic.   While part of me is drawn to that idea, again, if it occurs at the end of the unit as a summative assessment, then our ability to do anything about misconceptions or gaps is limited. Maybe a better idea is to have children write a paragraph (or couple of sentences in ks1) summing up what they have learn so far every three or so lessons, which eventually contribute to a non chronological report.  Older children could then write the introduction and conclusion at the end of the unit.  This approach would have the advantage that we could give students useful feedback on their written work by using a visualiser to share  answers, helping children identify where their answers could be made more complete (or correct.)  This would be an assessment of learning  within the foundation subjects to be proud of.

Summative assessment

But do children still remember what they learnt  months – or even years – later?  We are going to do a scary experiment in July. We are going to do a super quiz, assessing knowledge from all the ‘big 4’ topics they have done this year.  We will reissue them with back catalogue of KO’s to take home to revise, whizz through previous KO’s in story time,  re-run a couple of previous mcq’s in the run up – presenting the super quiz as a fun challenge with prizes for the year group with the best average score in each of the 4 subjects.  My class teachers are predicting very low scores…2 out of 10 being one suggestion.  We shall see. If they are that low, then mmm…. perhaps they just won’t make it onto my transitional object  spreadsheet.   It will be fascinating to see how the children do.  If they really don’t remember that much longer term, then that’s another argument for doing daily  short mcq’s or drills during the unit .  I was talking to Daisy Christodoulou recently and she had the very sensible idea of  helping children embed key grammar and punctuation ideas by doing editing challenges using  short passages  drawn from the  humanities curriculum from the previous year.  By so doing, the knowledge floating semi-forgotten somewhere in the long-term memory is re-remembered, thus strengthening that memory’s retrieval strength.

When I introduced the KO idea, I suggested that during topic blocks for the  subjects we weren’t going to have KO’s for (computing, art, and DT) that they gave out a previous unit’s KO each week, so knowledge was revisited. For good reasons this fell by the wayside, but it is something  to think about for next year.  And that brings me nicely to…

Assessment in the other 6 subjects?

So  history, geography, RE and science are sorted then.  That still leaves French and computing, art, DT, music and PE to assess. I’m not even going to go there with PHSE surely we can just teach that and  leave it at that? At St Matthias, French is taught by a subject specialist and native French speaker. She is off to Norwich in July to learn from Barry Smith  how to teach French the Michalea way.   I’m hoping we can adapt his method for ks2 learners, including the use of KO’s.   Computing, art, DT, PE and music could have their own KO’s reinforcing key vocabulary but I’d rather we focused most of our attention on  the process leading to an end product and used responsive teaching based on in the moment verbal feedback as our primary assessment method. Teachers could   also plan one over-arching end of unit objective against which to assess the end product and decide  if this has been ‘met’, ‘exceeded’ or is, in the assessment vernacular   mot de jour  still ‘developing’.  Personally I  think this is  a bit daft, so maybe I should stick to my guns and say that our assessment policy for  these 5 subjects is purely formative.   The  downside of that approach is that then it is difficult to know if your students are achieving at an acceptable standard and the strengths and weaknesses of your provision How would a purely formative approach enable reporting on progress in DT to governors, for example?  (Remember that allowing  ‘leaders, governors and teachers to track progress’  in foundation subjects ‘ was the key issue in the Ofsted report at the start of this piece.)    Actually, I think  it is just not do-able for primary teachers to track (with or without out numbers) every subject in the national curriculum in a meaningful way that actually  improves learning for anyone and I’d hope that Sean Harford would change his mind on the appropriateness of Ofsted expecting this across the board.   Instead of  making up systems to pretend we are ‘tracking’ attainment in art etc., we should pour our efforts into making sure that the teaching  – usually by non specialists – of these foundation subjects is as good as it possibly can be.  Quality professional development and cross school moderation of  foundation subjects, especially these foundation subjects – now these are things worth pouring time and energy into.


Ofsted says…assessment and the foundation subjects

No marking, no grading, no planning…

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KS2 maternity cover Sept 2017- July 2018

Salary:  MPS/UPS fixed term contract

Want a great year, teaching in a great school in a great location?

You will have to work hard here, but only on things that make a difference: we don’t do meaningless paperwork; we don’t grade lessons or monitor your planning.  Instead of marking we give feedback in lessons.  We are always trying to find smarter ways to do our work. We only recruit people who are passionate about making a difference to children’s lives; people who challenge themselves to keep on improving. This means our working relationships can be relatively relaxed and informal. People love working here; we are warm, welcoming, positive, supportive and forward looking.

You will be joining a 1 form entry Church of England school with an inclusive and multi-cultural ethos based in the vibrant Shoreditch area of Tower Hamlets. Our community includes pupils and staff from a range of different faiths as well as people with no faith – all are welcome. We work together to foster children who are compassionate, respectful, happy, tolerant, curious and collaborative as well as academically successful.

We are looking for a teacher who:

  • Has a proven record of success as a class teacher and expertise in empowering children to make rapid progress.
  • Demonstrates optimism about children and expect the highest possible standards
  • Nurtures pupils’ emotional wellbeing

We offer you:

  • Sensible and successful systems, based on research, with a commitment to reduce workload whenever possible
  • A positive, warm and welcoming working environment
  • Experienced, intelligent, lively colleagues
  • Family-friendly working practices
  • A fantastic location with great transport links

Closing date for applications: Friday 19th May
Interviews: week commencing Monday 22nd May

Visits to the school are strongly recommended and can be arranged via on 020 7739 8058 or by emailing Maureen Marlborough at  This is also the address if you want an application pack.  We reserve the right to close the selection process early.

St Matthias School is committed to safeguarding all children. Successful candidates will require a DBS clearance and suitable references before commencing employment. We welcome applications from all section of the community, regardless of gender, race, religion, disability, sexual orientation or age.

St Matthias School

Bacon Street


E2 6DY

020 7739 8058

No marking, no grading, no planning…