For an indeterminate amount of time, we are going to have to support students’ learning remotely as best we are able.  Were this a good way for them to learn we would, of course, do this far more as part of our normal practice.  The gap in achievement between PA students and those in school would also be much smaller.  However we know that remote learning cannot replace the classroom experience.  The dialogue, constant feedback that teachers get from reading faces and body language, circulating the room and asking questions are all missing or much-reduced.  We rely considerably more on students asking questions and effectively making their own “hinge” decisions, which we know many will struggle to do.  However research does give us some guidance as to how to make the best of this situation and some particular pitfalls to avoid over the coming weeks.  These are the principles I intend to follow in working with my classes:



  • The “Matthew Effect”

(Matthew 12.29:  “For to everyone who has, more will be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who does not have, even what he has will be taken away.”)

The Matthew Effect applies to lots of things in life and is best paraphrased as “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer”.  This is a particular concern of remote learning.  We know that some of our students will be diligent in logging on, completing the work and submitting it for feedback.  This may be from their own motivation, but in a lot of cases it will be because of the structures and support around them.  Some of our students will lack that support and drive; perhaps they have never had it, or they have parents working or struggling with sick relatives and so it is not available at this moment.  For those, the gap in learning may grow dramatically.  This in itself is a good reason to minimise new and overly challenging content delivery.  As a result I plan to:

  1. Maintain a careful track of students who are engaged with the learning and those who do not seem to be managing it. There may be little I can do at this stage to address it, but when students are back in school we can plan careful support and interventions for those who have fallen behind.
  2. Make efforts to reach out to families, by email or ‘phone where work is not happening. This will remind them that we’re still working and on hand to offer support (even remotely) and encourage them to engage with the work.  We know that children work less well when no-one is looking – it may help them to be reminded that we are looking and do care.


  • Feedback

AfL is one of the most important things we do, still rates as the highest impact strategy in the EEF’s Teaching and Learning Toolkit.  But many of the tools we need to make this work are being stripped away: students won’t be in front of us to produce work, we cannot run question-and-answer sessions and we cannot chase missing “homework”.  However we can mark work which is sent to us and we can do our best to give all students useful feedback.  Therefore I have told my students that I will:

  1. Use live marking and chat facilities on Google to engage with them whilst they are learning.  When we know what the situation is with key workers I will publish a timetable of my availability so that they do know how they can get hold of me for question-and-answer sessions and interaction through documents if needed.
  2. Do everything I can to encourage submission of work and give prompt feedback. They are lacking the live, “instant” feedback of the classroom but I have time and space to return work as quickly as possible to help support them.
  3. Post regular models of marked work with feedback on line: I can anonymise examples of work or produce my own so that those students who have not completed tasks or are struggling can still engage with models, corrections and common misconceptions I am seeing.
  4. Design and create regular quizzes of short answer/multiple-choice questions for SMHW. These are easy to mark, will guide me on what work to set and give me a quick shapshot of engagement whenever I want.  They will also be useful homework activities for the future, so will reduce my workload when students do return.


  • Students will struggle to master new content.

Learning new content can be incredibly difficult for students. We all know they bring all sorts of misconceptions and preconceptions to their learning that we carefully plan for in lessons, and probe for in our questioning and discussions.   The power of their pre-existing ideas (even if erroneous) can distort new information leading to further misunderstanding.  With this in mind I intend to:

  1. Minimise the amount of new content I deliver to students remotely.
  2. Replan and rewrite resources with remote learning in mind wherever I do try to deliver material. I know that if I just “send out” the material I would have used in lessons it will lack all the explanation and clarify I would have offered.
  3. Carefully select which topics I deliver: even if out-of-order I know there are certain topics that students will be able to understand and which lead to fewer misconceptions than others.  I will therefore “pick” these out of the curriculum to deliver remotely and start planning how to knit together the bigger picture when students return.
  4. Add a range of instructional methods to my resources that students can access: g. carefully produce or select some text, identify a good video, look for a website that covers the material as well.  That way if they struggle to comprehend one way they can look to a range of sources.


  • The most effective independent study involves students reviewing and recalling material or practising skills.


This is the principle upon which we set homework and we have regularly commented on how much students have to learn for the new GCSEs.  Rather than too much new content I intend to:

  1. Focus on revision and retention of powerful knowledge (Key Stage 3) and material already covered (KS4 and 5).
  2. Use extensive knowledge testing and revision guidance to ensure that this is thoroughly embedded and that students have a strong mastery.
  3. To promote engagement give extension work that builds on this, with new reading, case studies and resources, in favour of brand new content. This will give students the chance to extend their thinking and build their expertise without creating and unbridgeable content “gap” with those struggling to work online.
  4. Produce and carefully model skills for students so that they can practice these at home. Some teachers are already well ahead of me in terms of producing and sharing short skills videos with their students as a form of modelling … now it is my goal to master this technology and start to deliver it to my students.  Again, these will also be an investment in future learning.


There is no way that we can pretend learning over the next few months will be anything like normal.  When the students return there will be gaps between groups of students like very little we have previously seen.  We will have to do a lot of careful thinking about how to deliver the rest of the curriculum and transfer all the powerful knowledge we would have been teaching students over the next few weeks to other points in the curriculum.  But the research does offer us some guidance that can help us do our best to meet our students’ needs.


As I plan work, I will be asking myself the following questions to help me refine the activities as best I can:

  • Will the students be able to master this material: what support would they have needed in class and have I adjusted for that as remote learning?
  • How will I know if the students who have tried this have struggled, even if they don’t directly tell me? How will I assess this remotely and encourage and motivate them if they have found it hard?
  • What is the plan to pick up on this with the students who do not access it? How will I support them on their return to school?

As we work over the next few weeks I intend to review my practice as I go and revise and edit this piece.  A lot of this is new to all of us.  At the moment this is new – we have only our intuition (honed by our experience) and the research to guide us.  But all research is context dependent … we know our students and are going to learn a lot more in coming weeks.  Please do share things you find to work well, or things you find not to work with me as we go, so that I can pool our collective wisdom. 

In the first part of this blog “Reflecting on Homework: Getting it Wrong” ( I identified some key strategies I have tried over the years which have not worked to support most students.  These include:  tasks set to an arbitrary timetable rather than to meet learning needs, complicated open-ended tasks and flipped learning.

Considering the amount of work that can go into setting, chasing and marking homework this is a considerable waste of effort on my part and the students’!  However, with greater understanding of the research and insight into how students learn at home, I have been able to focus on improving the quality and impact of my homework.  In our team we now focus on the following things to help make homework effective:

  • Rehearsal of content: One of the most useful things students can do at home is revisit core content and commit it to long-term memory.  This reduces cognitive load in the classroom when applying material to new skills and contexts.  Giving students small, manageable amounts of content to learn, tasks that involve revisiting content (such as writing up the lesson in 5 bullet points) and regular quizzes can support their learning throughout the course.  We often set small multiple-choice quizzes as homework.  Using a site such as Show My Homework allows you to reuse quizzes regularly to ensure students are revisiting material throughout the course.  Short deadlines (a few days to a week) are ideal here, as they allow the student to review the work whilst it is still clear in their mind.  Giving them several attempts at the quiz allows them to try again if they have struggled and achieve success, rather than feel that they have “failed”.


  • Practice of Skills: Rehearsing specific skills and exam techniques can take a lot of time, and students can usefully do this at home.  However it is vital that they are clear on what they are aiming for so that they really are practicing valuable skills, not just practising “getting it wrong”!  Just because it is homework it is important not to forget the “I DO – WE DO – YOU DO” model.  Students at home need to work independently (“YOU DO”) and so before this they need skills clearly modelled, before working with the teacher in some practice examples in class.  Uploading the classroom resources and models to a shared drive which student can access from home gives them a first port of call for support, before they get stuck and need me.


  • Differentiated Tasks: At John Mason we do not use a “must/should/could” or “all/most/some” model.  Rather all students aim to achieve the same lesson objective, with different levels of structured support to help them achieve it.  The same philosophy can apply to homework with careful consideration of the extra support some students will need.   Partial solutions are a powerful tool to help students who are not yet ready to complete unstructured tasks independently.  I have not gone down the route of juggling different “homework groups” with different tasks set: instead I normally offer extension and support resources and use metacognitive strategies to reflect with students on making the right choice for them.  Most students want to do well and aim high and those who are not ready to operate without support, for whatever reason, can be encouraged towards it over time, rather than in a single task where they are making the decision on their own.  Some students may take a “lazy” choice at times, but we can discuss that later and in private – in the meanwhile, they are still doing some meaningful work.


  • Small regular tasks: there is no magic quantity of homework that best supports students’ learning but research suggests that if students are doing more than 60-90 minutes a night it starts to have diminishing returns.  In order to support students with committing content to memory, we have moved away from extended termly projects to small, regular tasks that see them revising and revisiting material on a regular cycle.  As we have seen that the vast majority of students tend to “save up” big projects and do them in one burst of effort we now break more complicated projects into smaller steps to allow us to monitor students’ progress and guide them throughout the project.

Of course, not every student completes their homework. Unfortunately, home and life circumstances mean that this remains a regular pattern for a small number of students, and an occasional issue for a larger number.  Some, especially early on in a course, but even in year 11, end up selecting the least useful approaches – putting the work off, completing it an unhelpful amount of time after the lesson, rushing it or even having to do it in detention.

However, the move away from flipped learning and big “high stakes” projects means that this does not create a situation in which students’ learning in class is damaged.  They can still access the lessons and be warmly welcomed without feeling that they are in “trouble” or that the poor decision about homework has fundamentally damaged either our relationship or their learning.  However the number of students making these choices is lower than it has ever been in my teaching experience.  With a clear sense of purpose, manageable tasks, accessible support and consistent follow-up most students understand the value of working at home.

As previously, these are the questions I reflect upon when planning a homework task:

  • Is the purpose of this task inherently clear or does it need further explanation from me?
  • What additional barriers will disadvantaged students face in completing this work at home? How have I acted to overcome these?
  • When students have forgotten what I just explained, how will they know what they are supposed to do for this piece of work and what the end product should look like?
  • What will the learning consequences be if the student does not complete the homework and how will we make up the deficit?
  • How will students who have been absent from the lesson complete this work, or what should they do instead?

For more on homework, try:

EEF Toolkit, (2016), ‘Homework (Secondary)’

Whether or not homework benefits students’ learning has always been slightly less certain than strong advocates or detractors would have us believe.  The research on the impact of homework has always been less clear than would ideally be the case for making teaching decisions.  On balance, it seems that for older students, homework does support good educational outcomes.  However this does not make it true for every child.

Cowan and Hallam (1999)’s ‘Model of Homework’ although now slightly dated, beautifully shows the myriad of factors that can affect the outcome of setting homework.  As well as the task itself and how it is presented, there is the culture, consistency and expectations of the school community.  Beyond this, the student’s own characteristics such as motivation and self-belief can greatly affect their engagement with the task.  Furthermore there are many factors in their home such as support, resources and the distractions of the environment that can make the outcome less than positive.

Considering the following possibility:  a student is faced with a homework task in a subject they do not enjoy.  The task is a complicated and challenging one, of the sort relished by high-attaining student.  But this student does not know where to get started.  The task relies on remembering key information from the lesson, which they have not recalled.  It requires completing some further research, but they have little idea what to type into Google to generate useful information.  They half-heartedly try coping some material from Wikipedia, but know that they got told off for this previously and have no idea how to turn the material into the “own words”.  At home, there is little support.  Perhaps no-one else can understand the task, or their carers are busy with long shifts or younger siblings.  Anxiety builds but they are too nervous to go and explain to the teacher that they weren’t listening well enough in the lesson and now don’t know what to do for the homework.  On the morning it is due, they sleep little and wake up feeling terrible.  They’re tired, have a headache and are unusually listless.  It is a tremendous relief when their carer agrees to phone the school and confirm that they will not be in that day, as they are too sick.

Sadly this is not a far-fetched example, but a recurring reality for some student, a problem that grows as they advance through their schooling and the pressure grows more intense.  However it is increasingly clear that there are a number of factors that are in the school’s control which can make this outcome more likely, and reduce possible positive impacts of homework.  These include:


Tasks without a clear learning purpose:

When I started teaching, I barely thought about homework at all.  There was a whole school timetable so I had to set homework on a particular lesson each fortnight.  Whilst I put a lot of time and thought into planning my lessons, homework was always an afterthought, some basic research for the next lesson or a fairly meaningless summary task “Write a letter from King Henry II explaining why he was sorry for killing Becket.” Some children would duly turn up with beautifully tea-stained pieces of paper for me to display and praise whilst others would spend a breaktime with me painfully scrawling out a couple of lines that basically involved rewriting the title and scrawling “King Henry” at the bottom.  There was little purpose, little sophisticated learning and a lot of detentions.  It was not good.  One key issue was that the tasks lacked purpose and were set hurriedly and with little thought. Instead of being able to set tasks when they were meaningful to the learning, I was constrained by a strict timetable and so the pressure to set something was greater than the pressure to ensure that the work was of a high quality.


Complicated Open-Ended Tasks:

When I became the subject lead, I was able to take control of the timetable and my mission became to make homework more meaningful.  The stream of detentions I was picking up from teachers in a very small department (2.5 fte), nearly all for homework, convinced me that weekly or fortnightly homeworks were unmanageable.  There was literally no way to chase down the last missed homework before the next was missed and so sanctions were piling up for some students.  I adjusted the approach to more substantive project-based work. This had a number of advantages, not least in that it gave 6 weeks to chase down and extract work from those who had not submitted anything.  It also meant that there was no regular scramble to invent a “task” but that we could use a series of projects that were carefully designed to be meaningful.  However the most disadvantaged students struggled most.  Completing the tasks successfully involved working on the project slowly and steadily over 6 weeks to conduct research and complete the final piece.  I never looked into the matter too closely, but I strongly doubt that more than 10% of students did anything like this.  Instead the experience at home was 5 weeks of nothing and then a frantic weekend of hours’ of work pulling together a project as quickly as possible.  At parents’ evening we would discuss better strategies and offer support sessions and more guidance about breaking the projects down.  But these would only work for those who approached the task in a certain way; and not one I have ever mastered myself.

The difficulty with open-ended homework tasks was that, whilst they could be both challenging and meaningful, they required a lot of skills and characteristics that most students were still developing. They needed effective study habits, including the ability to plan ahead and self-regulate. They required a level of time management that many adults find difficult.  They demanded a wide range of resources both to research and produce, to which not all students had easy access.  The most successful probably received considerably support from home either in preparing the project, understanding the criteria or even just in the forms of prompts and encouragement to do some work before the deadline loomed.


Flipped Learning:

In another attempt to make homework more meaningful I have also dabbled with “flipped learning”.  This approach never really became core to my practice because the problems seemed so insurmountable from early on.  In principle the idea seemed sensible: by having student pre-read or pre-prepare for my lessons as they do for some A-level and university seminars, they would come in with knowledge and information I could shape more efficiently than ever.  Their learning would advance dramatically and they would get the absolute maximum out of lesson times.  Assuming, of course, that my exposition could easily be replaced with an alternative resource.  And that my questioning, and continuous AfL to assess when students were ready to move on was unnecessary in teaching new material.  And that all students would complete the work to the same desired point of understanding so that I could pick up the lesson at exactly the right point.

In reality, of course, the disadvantaged students were those least likely and least able to complete the work or to secure support when they tried.  They therefore turned up to the lesson with an even greater gap between their starting point and that of their peers, plus a teacher who was more than a little irate at the problems created by them not doing the work set.

In each of these approaches good intent was thwarted by the complicated reality of the many, many factors that shape students’ response to homework.  From trying these different approaches and by continuing to return to the research, I have slowly come to a formulaic but effective approach to homework.  Key things that make homework effective are:

  • Small regular tasks
  • Rehearsal of content and practice of skills
  • A strong culture of purposeful work
  • Differentiated tasks and especially careful consideration of the needs of students with SEND
  • Clear models and support with the work

I shall explore these in  Part 2 of this blog:  Reflecting on … Homework: Getting it Right.

In the meanwhile, here are some questions that help me reflect on whether a task is likely to go wrong before I set it:

  • Is the purpose of this task inherently clear or does it need further explanation from me?
  • What additional barriers will disadvantaged students face in completing this work at home? How have I acted to overcome these?
  • When students have forgotten what I just explained, how will they know what they are supposed to do for this piece of work and what the end product should look like?
  • What will the learning consequences be if the student does not complete the homework and how will we make up the deficit?
  • How will students who have been absent from the lesson complete this work, or what should they do instead?

Like over 80% of teachers, I believe that boys and girls should be able to perform equally in any subject and should have equal opportunities so to do.  I don’t use the “gender” column of my class data sheets to adjust expectations.  And, of course, I offer equal support opportunities to both genders.  So gender gaps have very little to do with me or my classroom practice.  And I can relax and breathe easy.  Perhaps there are other colleagues whose attitudes are less modern and who bear a greater share of responsibility for persistent gender gaps in attainment.  Though that it hard to believe as most overtly echo my own views.  Far more likely it is the children themselves and the attitudes, behaviours and expectations they bring to the classroom.  The way they are programmed by wider “society” into certain gender roles and behavioural patterns that affect their educational outcomes.  And the gender gap exists throughout the education system.  So that must be it … it is society’s problem, nothing to do with me and I can relax.

The only downside to reading “Boys Don’t Try?  Rethinking Masculinity in Schools” by Matt Pinkett and Mark Roberts is that it challenges such assumptions.  This can be discomfiting.  To learn that the 80% of teachers who say boys and girls should perform equally in any subject then went on in interviews to show gender oriented attitudes about writing, behaviour, oracy and mathematics gave pause.  I began to think about staffroom comments about “boy-heavy” classes and “not your typical” boy/girl (e.g. those making subject choices that did not fit gender stereotypes).  Of course this may just be a drop in an ocean, or behind closed doors and so it is still possible to think it may not matter.  Not much.

But then you’re challenged to think about all the little choices you make as a teacher, all the little ways in which gender expectations trump individuals; some encouraged by those around and above us.  As I continued reading, I made a list of my own sins in this regard and some of the questions it raised:

  • Using gender to plan lesson seating and as a tool for behaviour management, and thus having different expectations of students’ behaviour before I even meet them. Could this then lead to different reactions for the same behaviour based on gender?
  • Being surprised at the number of boys when walking into a (voluntary) revision class. Did I express this, even inadvertently, and reinforce the expectation that these sessions were not “for” boys?
  • Expecting far more boys in a leadership detention. Did this change the nature and tone of my conversations with students; more of a shrug at the boys’ tales of bad behaviour, greater disappointment and time spent reflecting with the girls?
  • Turning a blind eye to gender-reinforcing “interactions” and “banter”, especially as students get older. Is an ironic eye-roll really enough to challenge the reinforcement of gender norms and the low-level harassment or incursion of their personal space that some students have to endure in the school environment?
  • Adjusting expectations of a “boy-heavy” class both in terms of behaviour and outcome. How far am I therefore driving behaviour and attainment differences?

The list goes on, but the point is that, when I really thought about it, and as I paid close attention to my own practice in subsequent weeks, I began to notice gender-oriented comments and behaviours my own practice and that of those around me.

Of course, the question remains how far this matters.  Our students have had a whole lifetime of gender-oriented behaviour training from society, peers and the media.  Is my expectation that there will be more boys in this week’s after school detention really going to do any significant damage?  Especially as it is a prediction that I could bet my life savings will prove to be true, without much fear of going homeless.

But the sheer prevalence of such conditioning is one of the reasons our modelling and expectations do carry such power.  If boys live in a world where academic success is feminine and damage to their esteem is fixed by asserting masculinity their behavioural choices can be individually rational but destructive over the long-term.  If tests, rows, anxiety, pressure and stress all create a drive to “masculine” behaviours of messing around, not revising or working hard, and getting into trouble then every time we reinforce the underlying expectations we are reinforcing these behaviours.  And, in a time of increasing anxiety in all our students, boys and girls, when we reinforce behaviour and study norms in our students, we perpetuate and increase the anxiety levels of those who feel that they don’t, can’t or don’t want to fit in.  Which is probably all of them.

Each time we, as teachers, model, perpetuate or reinforce these behaviours it probably is just a drop in a vast ocean.  But then the first 5 minutes of, say, my lesson next Tuesday period 5 is just a drop in the ocean of their learning.  I still intend to plan it and make it the best I can.

Because by developing ourselves, and consciously, actively challenging these expectations we as teachers have the power to be more than a drop in the ocean and to promote positive change.  Of course, habits are hard to change and I have already made slips.  But we can learn from these and reflect on how to get better.

And of course my list is just the behaviours I have noticed in myself.  One of the most powerful feedback tools for teachers is that of peer observation. A  peer can help you probe further into your gender practices and expectations.  They can focus their observation on interactions it is very hard to track ourselves whilst teaching.  So my next challenge to myself is to ask a colleague to use our observation time to really probe gender interactions in my classroom.  I want to know:

  • Do my questions fall equally on boys and girls? Not just in terms of number but in terms of challenge level of the questions?
  • How long do I give each gender to answer, think and reflect? Do I move on more quickly or leap in with the correct answer when boys get questions “wrong”?
  • Is my behaviour management consistent – do I notice and address off-task behaviours when they appear in boys and girls?
  • Is my tone and voice adjusted by gender? Am I communicating different expectations with non-verbal cues such as body language?

I suspect some hard answers but they will be useful because, as Pinkett and Roberts argue so convincingly.  This really matters.

As further reading, of course I recommend “Boys Don’t Try? Rethinking Masculinity in Schools” by Matt Pinkett and Mark Roberts.  Now available in our CPD library.

Amanda Spielman (2018):  “Too many teachers and leaders have not been trained to think deeply about what they want their pupils to learn and how they are going to teach it.”

When I became Head of History, over a decade ago, our curriculum offer was quite typical and largely outside of my hands.  We followed a conventional Key Stage 3 covering 1066-1945, in line with the National Curriculum directives, and did a range of units at Key Sates 4 and 5 that were intensively focused on modern world history.  In these courses we included as much overlap as possible in order to, we believed, give our students the best chance of excelling in their final exams.

The freedom offered in recent years is both empowering and exhilarating, but not something that it was easy to instantly know what to do with.  At first, I tinkered with the original national curriculum material, cautiously chose a wider range of A-level and GCSE options as directed by the new specifications and, to be fair, invested a considerable energy into mastering these new topics.  However in the last couple of years I have found myself in a position to think much more carefully about what students should be learning in their time at John Mason – what is the “powerful knowledge” I want them to take away, and why.  In developing my thinking in this area, a number of principle ideas from educational research have been tremendously helpful.

Key idea 1:  Learning is about knowledge in long term memory and builds in schemas of connected ideas.    

Too often in the past I have considered units of work, and even lessons in isolation, considering their “quality” based on performance-related outcomes (rather than learning outcomes) such as pupil enjoyment.  Furthermore I have often failed to be explicit in helping my students to integrate new knowledge to an integrated whole.  The fact that it is easier to teach a course the second time around is a truism that I now relate to the connectedness of knowledge in my own head and my tendency to forward-plan rather than plan from the end.  In light of this I am changing my curriculum planning model and instead of thinking forward from units or even tasks that I like or want students to experience, I am thinking about the key knowledge they need to understand.  In this planning, the knowledge organiser is becoming an indispensable tool.  They are available to download (and time is not infinite!), but wherever possible I am trying to make my own, or at least edit the ones I download, to ensure that I am carefully thinking about the knowledge we are delivering and how it connects in a meaningful way.

Key idea 2:  Students’ response to teaching will be affected by the knowledge they already have, the mindset they bring to the class or subject and, more than anything else, their peer group. 

However, no matter how carefully designed the knowledge organiser and related teaching activities, each student is going to connect the ideas in their own, unique, brain in their own, unique, way.  If in doubt they will look to their peers for guidance which can be helpful, but can also end up building and escalating misconceptions.  The student with the greatest understanding is not necessarily going to be the one the others listen to.    The implications of this for teaching, learning and curriculum planning are vast.  However, one or two key things that I need to think about at the curriculum planning stage strike very strongly.  The first, perhaps, is the need to consider our students’ context very carefully when planning curriculum delivery.  Not knowing doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll ask – and certainly not that they’ll ask the teacher.  They can and will attach ideas to what they do know and can create powerful and long-lasting misconceptions in this process.  It is therefore imperative that I consider their backgrounds and access to relevant contextual information very carefully when planning learning – that vital cultural capital or lack thereof that can make so much difference.  It is important to allow time to explore pre-conceptions.  Educational visits and other experiences that bring the learning to life can take on a new significance, for children who are unable to visualise the content we are describing.  And, vitally, I must share the curriculum map with students (the knowledge organiser comes in handy again here) in order to help them piece together the individual units of learning in a meaningful way.

Key idea 3:  Teaching needs to be responsive, and interactive and the need to build a dialogue about learning includes assessment.

Even with the most careful planning in the world I cannot entirely change idea 2 and my students will build schemas that are unique to them.  But the better I can understand what they are thinking and how they are assimilating information the better able I am to shape this and tackle misconceptions.  Again the implications here are many and varied and this links closely to the nature of questioning in the classroom, which I have discussed a lot elsewhere.  However, for me, the biggest implications for “bigger picture” curriculum planning have been for assessment.  I’ve put a lot of thought into how and when to assess, how to create assessments that really give me insight into what students have taken from the learning and how to “break away” from the rigid adherence to exam questions when a different assessment model would offer better insight.  It is also the key rationale behind our dialogic marking policy, the careful emphasis on minimising staff workload and allowing freedom to respond to what the students have understood.  A driving principle behind our approach to formative assessment is to identify and address misconceptions, in whatever form of response is most appropriate.

Key idea 4:  Memory is strengthened by revisiting material and retrieval practice and learning is maximised when the cognitive load is optimised.

Understanding of how memory works has been one of the most important research areas in developing my teaching and planning.   The old model of delivering blocks of material and then revising these at the end of the course (or expecting students to revise the material) was my instinctive approach for many years.   Now when curriculum planning I try to carefully consider the principles of interleaving, retrieval practice and cognitive load.  This is not the place to detail research into memory at length, but the key implications I have taken are this:

  1. Students will not remember all the “powerful knowledge” I want them to on the first exposure and so I need to work out how to revisit material over the lifespan of a course. This needs to be carefully planned to ensure that the information itself does not lose internal coherence (e.g. in history, say, a chronological structure).
  2. Regular, spaced retrieval practice including low-stakes testing will support students’ retention of the core material they have learned. The time for this needs to be worked into my curriculum plan.  I have made the decision to allocate lesson time to this as I am just not convinced that it will be done well at home by all students, thus creating a chasm in their understanding.
  3. The more information they have readily available in long-term memory the less the “cognitive load” is of absorbing new material and more complicated concepts. By revisiting concepts after spaced retrieval practice I maximise the likelihood of students being able to access such material.  Therefore I need to plan this into my curriculum delivery model.

Key idea 5:  Students of all ages and attainment levels can benefit from metacognition.

Too often in the past I have focused on the end product as the end of the learning,  My assessment of students’ success has been based on a summative piece of work and I have used my professional judgement to try and unpick where and how things went wrong and to plan interventions.  I am only just beginning to understand the power of metacognition to help students understand, plan and monitor their own learning.  I am blogging about my experiences with this in other posts.  However I am already experiencing the implications for my curriculum planning.  The need to leave time and space and identify key points for me to model my own approaches and thinking has further developed my planning around the delivery of new concepts and assessments.  The construction of learning models that support an iterative process where students are able to experience learning in repeated iterations, wherein they reflect on their past learning strategies and develop these is vital.  We are going to be doing a lot more work on this in the next year but already it is feeding into my planning models and we are developing resources to support this at key points throughout the learning in all key stages.

With all this to consider, there is a lot to take on.  Different teams and subjects are at different places and there is work to do in developing these ideas in practice.  Developing and improving a curriculum is not a single or an overnight job but one I am working on all the time.  It will never be perfect.  However, with these research ideas in mind, I feel more confident than ever I have that I know the right questions to ask of our curriculum and that I am identifying ways to improve it that will have real impact on students’ learning at John Mason School.

Questions to help reflect on curriculum design:

  • How have you designed your curriculum and what is the rationale behind this?
  • How do your curriculum choices reflect the context of your pupils?
  • How did you choose what to teach and when?
  • How are subject skills developed throughout the curriculum?
  • How do you identify gaps in knowledge and how do you assess skills?
  • What works well and what needs to be developed within your curriculum?

After many, many years of just operating instinctively, I have been thinking a lot about questioning over the last few years.  I have been reading a lot about questioning.  I’ve read about strategies, types of questioning and pauses.  I’ve blogged as my thinking has developed; about distributing questions equitably, or using pauses at different points in the questioning sequence to build students’ responses.  I have learned about hinge questioning and how to construct  multiple-choice questions that really probe students’ thinking.   I’ve been introduced to technology that does an amazing job at supporting quiet students to respond and participate, or at randomising my question selection.

I have learned a lot.  To summarise some key thoughts in a few bullet points, I have learned that:

  1. Questioning is very important – perhaps one of the most powerful tools we have as classroom teachers.
  2. Performance and learning are not the same – so questioning needs to be subtle and strategic.
  3. There are many different types of questioning, with many different purposes.
  4. Students respond to questioning in very different ways.
  5. There is a LOT to learn about questioning, and it is very complicated.

Some of the advice I’ve heard and, indeed, repeated to teachers in the past now makes me cringe.  To take one example: whole class questioning.  I find this a hugely powerful tool, at the right time and in the right place.  If routines are established it can be an efficient way to poll the class.  However the routines are vital – the equipment being available, the speed with which it can be accessed.  If not, chaos quickly ensues.  Of course students copy each others’ answers; so I’m looking for more than just what is written on the whiteboard.  I’m gauging reaction time and looking to see who is stuck, looking around at their peers or quickly changing their answer to conform with the class.  It matters whether this is a hinge moment, or an opinion poll or a quick plenary.  It matters whether the act of correcting their answer is the learning I desire or whether I really need to know how many students actually know the information … in which case perhaps I should be considering a quick (private, low-stakes) written quiz.  Thus to simply tell teachers to “try whole class questioning” is remarkably simplistic and probably not going to work without much greater support and guidance.  And yet it happens.  A lot.

One of my roles is to support our early career teachers, who increasingly come from a variety of routes into teaching, with many different levels and types of training.  “Questioning” is a recurring development point, frequently raised by reflective teachers themselves who are always looking to improve the quality and value of their classroom interactions.  It is a hard one to tackle: there are so many things to get right, and so many which can go wrong. There is a lot of reading out there and much great advice, but it can be too specific, or else act like a “menu” of strategies.  It is not always clear what to pick.

With a focus on metacognition in our school this year, I have been thinking a lot more about my own thinking and about how and why I make decisions as a teacher.  To support our early careers teachers I have mapped out this questioning flow diagram that tries to capture some of the decisions I make on a day-to-day basis.  My key thinking boils down to:


This is not meant to be a comprehensive overview of questioning.  It links to pieces that explore the issue with far more subtlety.  It leaves off some big ideas in questioning (e.g. hinge questions) as I find them to be a little complicated when struggling with questioning, although immensely powerful when well planned and because I really wanted it to be a single page for easy reference.  Every time I look at it I tweak it a little more, or question whether I have included or excluded the right things.  Several colleagues have suggested tweaks which have been included here (with thanks to Lucy Dasgupta and Chris Davies).

However my early career colleagues this year do say they have found it helpful as a starting point and so I am sharing it here.  Any constructive suggestions would be appreciated and any colleagues who have their own similar maps and would be willing to share, I’d love to take a look.

Questions that help me to reflect when planning questioning:

  1. Why am I asking the class questions?
  2. Should more students be involved in this questioning sequence/dialogue?
  3. Is this questioning strategy time-efficient for my major goal?
  4. What would this look like if it worked brilliantly?  Where should I go for help with that specific strategy or vision?

The problem with lesson observations

Lesson observations can be uncomfortable for both parties and are difficult to get right.  When being observed it is hard not to feel judged and even defenceless, even though that is not the intent.  The abolition of “judgements” following Ofsted’s lead in 2014 did not necessarily do enough to change this dynamic.  Partly because there is also discomfort on the part of the observer.  As an observer the pressure to offer “constructive suggestions” can force you to look for the negative instead of the positive and the better the lesson is the more wide-reaching can become the search for something “useful” to say.

Furthermore there is often a divergence of goals between the observer and a teacher.  As a teacher I want to put on my “best face”.  At times this has been quite a fake “show” that didn’t reflect my normal teaching.  As I grew more confident I was happier delivering something that more closely resembled my “normal lesson” (whatever that is!) but was still overly focused on aspects of planning and delivery that were about performance rather than substance.  However as an observer I want to see difficulties, challenges, classes that are struggling and things that I might be able to “help” with.

There are many other issues with the lesson observation model.  To name a few:

  • Judgements are often unreliable, and it is unclear that two observers would focus on or even notice the same things or feedback on the same points. When doing joint observations I have often picked up on very different, sometimes entirely contradictory things from a fellow observer.  Whilst we can normally reach agreement with a short discussion, it has always made me wonder about all those observations with just a single observer…
  • The observation itself is not necessarily a valid tool for analysing a teacher’s pedagogical choices. This holds even assuming the best of conditions (a subject specialist with some knowledge of the students in the room).  Whilst there are clear and helpful principles behind good teaching, we all know that choices about delivery of a particular unit of learning to a particular cohort of students can be personal and highly nuanced.  Whether observing or being observed, I rarely felt that the comprehensive understanding of these things existed between both parties that was required to ensure feedback was relevant and useful.  Various efforts to mitigate for this (extended lesson planning sheets, detailed “context” documents) have tended to add to workload rather than solving the core problems.
  • The observation is unlikely to give a valid picture of learning or progress. You can’t observe learning, only performance which is a poor proxy for learning under the best conditions.  This results in most teachers, however resistant to putting on a “show” having to offer some adaptations in an effort to “demonstrate progress”.  When both the teachers and the class are “performing” it is at best questionable whether the observation represents normal practice, rendering the feedback of very limited use.


As a result, it is unsurprising that there is little evidence to show that the 3 lesson observations a year most teacher get have a positive impact on teaching and learning.  Attempts to change this have generally fallen flat.  For example, the University of Bristol’s large scale Teacher Observation study trialled in 82 schools showed the model to be very expensive but with no impact on (English or maths) results.

However, this year, our new Director of Teaching and Learning, Lucy Dasgupta, introduced a new model of developmental lesson observations to John Mason and it has been something of an eye opener.  Her ideas have radically changed how we conduct lesson observations at John Mason and not before time.


Key Components of the Developmental Lesson Observation Model

1:  An agreed and precise focus – The teacher brings an idea for the focus of the observation to the planning meeting and this is agreed with the observer by the end of the meeting.  The aim is that it should be something that is a new strategy or a pedagogical development for the teacher.  In my first observation I sought feedback on my implementation of retention and recall strategies, particularly with regards to the appropriate pacing for different groups of students in the lesson.  In another I asked the observer to focus on my modelling of my metacognitive processes as I modelled an extended analytical thinking task for the students.  In both cases, I selected something I am developing in my teaching this year and sought feedback on this agreed aspect of the lesson.

2:  Joint Planning – before the lesson observation the teacher meets with the observer to discuss their plan for the lesson, their objectives and relevant contextual factors.  This does not require mountains of paperwork (if a teacher is there to explain their planning, why would it?) but it does involve both finding some time together to invest in a discussion about the objectives for the lesson.  During the planning session the strategies the teacher plans to use in relation to the observation focus are reviewed particularly carefully.  The observer’s role is as an active participant in planning, sharing experience and suggestions.  This increases the likelihood that the observation itself will be useful as both parties clearly understand the objective and the choices behind strategy selection.  There is not a sense of “I wouldn’t have done it like that…” as ideas are shared at the planning stage.  I have found both as an observee and an observer that what comes out of this meeting is a shared understanding of the context of the class and a sense of shared ownership for the lesson.

  1. The Observation – During the observation the observer focuses on the agreed development in a manner discussed in the planning meeting. At the planning stage both parties discuss what the observer might focus on, with the classroom teacher taking an active role in defining what data would be useful to help them evaluate their own strategy.  When being observed the whole process is more comfortable; I know what the observer is looking at and why, and what sort of feedback they are gathering.  It is what I have asked for!
  2. Feedback – This is short and focused, as both parties review the evidence gathered. The observer’s main role is to provide data to help the teacher (the expert on that class in that subject, let us remember) to reach a judgement about how well the lesson strategy met their goals for the class and how they might develop it further in the future.  Other discussion is off the table; this is not a general, sweeping review of someone’s teaching, with the observer feeling pressured to provide “development points”, however trivial or tangential to the focus.
  3. Considerations for future practice – the final steps of reflection are considerations for future practice in taking the strategy forward. This can be led by the observer or the teacher depending upon the nature of the feedback discussion, and may involve identification of next steps, or further support.


This model of lesson observation seems empowering both as a teacher and an observer.  In both roles I feel more comfortable and the process feels far more natural and productive than using the traditional model.    Obviously there is no way to measure the impact of this specific innovation amongst everything else.  However my experience has been that the feedback I have received has been much more focused and useful to my development than previously – it is something that fits with my own development goals and helps me effectively reflect on my practice.   Our staff feedback after the first cycle of observations suggest this to be widely the case.  Even if this is not 100% achieved, if lesson observations can be conducted in a way that empowers teachers, respects their professionalism and leaves them in control of the learning in their own classroom then I’m all for them!

Questions that help me to get the most out of a developmental observation:

What am I currently developing in my own teaching?  What new strategies am I trying to deploy with my classes?

Where am I least confident in my delivery or outcomes e.g. in what area of my teaching could I most benefit from support and guidance?  Which aspect of content, lesson planning, or which sub-group of students might make a useful focus?

What would I like to better understand about my own teaching at the end of the observation?  What data could an observer gather that would help me better reflect on my own teaching than just being alone with my class?

Information on the Teacher Observation project can be found here: