Thought for the day…and possible the year…


Cognitive scientists tell us that learning is the  processing of information in the working memory which is then transferred to the long-term memory. In turn, knowledge is stored in the long-term memory within networks of related information called schemas. Under this analysis, in thinking about the difference between the novice and the expert, a distance we are always striving to traverse in education, then the expert is considered to have large amounts of background knowledge, or expansive schemas, stored in their long-term memory. Not only does this mean they know more, but it also enables them to think quicker as their working memory is not taken up processing information; instead information is retrieved automatically from long-term memory for application. The more they know, the faster they seem to become. This is my experience too. The children who know more, think faster and pick up the next things I teach much faster too. Knowledge builds knowledge it seems; skill then manifests through the ability to retrieve the appropriate knowledge and apply it as required.

According to cognitive science then, ‘skills’ are not generic actions that we can carry around from one subject area to another, but rather skills are the application of domain specific knowledge. Because of this, skills like critical thinking for example, are something that cannot be taught in and of themselves as effective critical thinking requires background knowledge – or stuff to think critically about. So far, I can’t find much in my daily experience as a teacher to contradict this, but I’m also aware of jumping onto educational band wagons, although the fact that this has research and evidence to support it, makes it compelling. 

Who would disagree that expertise is about possessing expansive knowledge and applying that skillfully? Yet a doctor cannot transfer her skill of critically thinking through a diagnosis and finding a cure, to for example, diagnosing what’s wrong with her car and fixing it. If she had the same background knowledge of the internal combustion engine as she did the human body then yes, but here she doesn’t so her adept ability to think critically when faced with a sick patient, just doesn’t transfer. This also makes some sense to me, but I also think there are some overarching general skills or competencies that must transfer like staying calm under pressure, being resilient when at first you aren’t successful, recognising when you need help etc. Perhaps these aren’t skills, but they are facets of mental processing that we can talk about, reflect on, cultivate and practise so perhaps they are?

However, this current  idea that education should be based on knowledge acquisition, rather than generic skills, the independent existence of which scholars debate fiercly, makes some sense to me when I think about the children I teach. The children who appear more skilled in an area always seem to know more about that topic. I also recognise that in project work or problem-solving tasks, it is again, the children who know more who fair better, but I’m not a cognitive scientist and this is purely anecdotal.

One area that also makes sense to me is what Hirsch says about reading skills. According to Hirsch, we try to teach children comprehension skills such as ‘finding the main idea,’ or ‘summarising a text’ or ‘scanning to find answers.’ For Hirsch, effective reading skills lie in knowledge acquisition and vocabulary understanding. For him, we can teach children ‘finding the main idea’ until we’re blue in the face, but give them a text about a subject they have no knowledge about and they will struggle to find that main idea. And when this happens, we are not testing their reading skills, but rather their knowledge and understanding.

Put like this, our reading tests in this country, test breadth of knowledge and vocabulary acquisition rather than this thing called ‘reading skills’; this is unless of course we assert that once decoding skills are secure, breadth of knowledge and vocabulary understanding are in fact reading skills? In which case, why try to teach skills like ‘finding the main idea’ or ‘summarising a text’. The teaching focus should then be on knowledge acquisition and vocabulary understanding surely?

And if this is true, then these reading tests aren’t a fair measure of reading skills at all, because rather than measure what we have supposedly taught, ‘the skill of reading,’ they instead measure the background knowledge children might possess in a range of random topics which may or may not have been taught, or they may or may not have come across in life. As more affluent children tend to have a wider range of knowledge acquiring experiences and vocabulary understanding through, not least, all those holidays, visits to zoos and museums and clubs etc, then they tend to do better at reading tests, despite being taught the same skills in schools, such as ‘finding the main idea,’ ‘summarising’, ‘predicting’ and all those other generic reading skills we have thought make the effective reader.

Again, I’m drawn to this idea, but I’m not completely convinced yet. It does have resonance with my experience, but I’d still like more evidence, although anecdotally I feel I have my own. Take last year’s KS1 reading test. On paper 1, there was a fictional story about a boy who has his cousin coming to visit. It turns out the cousin is a baby and so can’t play with him so he’s disappointed.  Most children who could decode effectively and read fluently did well on this section. Most children have cousins and have had them to come and play. They also know about babies and that they can’t play with trucks etc. Essentially the knowledge base for this section was simply common knowledge for 6 and 7 years old. Fine.

Then there was the non-fiction section on paper 1. This is where things started to change. This section started off being about pack lunches – great, children know about pack lunches.  But it soon changed to being about bread making. The main vocabulary was familiar only to those children who had perhaps made bread before or been out to the countryside and seen grain harvested, or who had learnt about how grain is harvested and turned into flour at some point at home. This is not specific to anything required in the national curriculum, and even though we had done some pizza making that year, we hadn’t talked about how flour was made – damn!

Admittedly, we were allowed to introduce the specialised vocabulary and establish the meaning before the test, but if what we know about working memory is true, being told the meaning of five brand new words just before a large amount of cognitive load is put upon the working memory in the form of a test, means that for most children that information would have been lost the minute the children started reading the first questions and trying to work out what to do.   The children who knew about bread making were at an advantage from the start. The children who knew nothing about turning wheat into flour then bread would have had to work harder in the test.

It is no surprise to me that children did better on the first part of paper 1. This experience could support what scholars like Willingham, Bjork and Christodoulou are saying about generic skills, and in particular what Hirsch says about reading.  The question I ask myself is, how different would the results of that test have been if we had completed a project on farming and bread making that year so that they were familiar with words like dough and yeast? If the class next door had done that project and not us, would it have been a fair reading test for us both or  would it have been simply testing  whether the class next door learned the content in their bread making project?

At the same time, I am acutely aware that in education we pick up new ideas and get over excited far too easily. I know I have in the past. All of this current research does have randomised control trials behind it and robust evidence if I am to believe what I read, but education has suffered from pendulums swinging so far they other way that everything slides to the end of the deck and we start tripping up on everything.  We have to be wary. We cannot go back to learning lists of facts that will never be any use to anyone, but no one has suggested that, not once in fact. Certainly, acquiring a breadth of knowledge in order to apply that to problems and investigations makes sense in the light of what we now know. We have nothing to lose if we stick with bringing theory and practice together. My hope is that we all try hard to use evidence rather than feelings, or attachments to the ways we have always done things. We might think and feel something is right, but we might be completely wrong. If we accept this as a profession, we will help ourselves a great deal. A head teacher I respect a great deal said to me recently, ‘ we need to challenge ourselves and sometimes that’s uncomfortable’.  I agree.

The evidence from cognitive science is compelling and should prompt leaders and teachers to think about how they teach and what they teach and the impact this has on learners. So many times, new things have come along, but little has changed. Poor children haven’t done any better; the attainment gap continues, like a line draw in concrete, hard to shift. This research on learning, memory and knowledge acquisition suggests that a knowledge rich curriculum could be a better way to address this, rather than through the generic skills route that we have tried for a long time without much change.  I think it’s worth going further with this, mindful of the mistakes of the distant past of course and with a close eye on the kind of knowledge that will help ALL children really fly forward.

And lastly, why not purposely base  reading tests on age appropriate curricular knowledge instead of topics like bread making, juice pressing or bee keeping or adventures on safari?   Let’s give the kids who learn most of their knowledge of the world in school a fighting chance! 


Reflecting on the best that we know so far: thoughts on this season’s Journal of the Chartered College of Teaching.


On reading a number of articles focusing on curriculum in the latest issue of the Journal of the Charted College of Teaching, I felt compelled to blog a response in an attempt to interpret some of the highly pertinent ideas and assertions. I would urge all readers to try to read the original articles in the autumn Impact journal, as here is only a brief distillation, and without the breadth of knowledge of the original authors, who to my mind, reflect the best of what we know so far about these topics as an educational community.

So here we are, four years after negotiating the change in the national curriculum and adapting to assessment without levels, and schools are now turning towards those parts of the curriculum beyond reading, writing and maths.

Now that the dust has settled after the turbulence of curriculum change and assessment transformation, everyone’s eyes have turned to the other curricular areas of our knowledge rich curriculum.  Concern has arisen about the over emphasis on the three Rs, and to an extent picking up the reins of the progressive, child-led movement, with many schools advocating more focus on things like problem-solving, skills and discovery learning.  However, as educators we must take great care that we understand the possible effects of our reaction towards what feels like the imposition of what is essentially a private school, knowledge-based curriculum on state education.

To add to this, there is a growing debate on just how far we have all been side tracked by the separation of knowledge and skills, when growing evidence from cognitive science by psychologists like Daniel Willingham suggest that there are no skills without bodies of knowledge to underpin them (2009). Therefore, an over emphasis on skill-based and problem- solving learning for children without adequate background knowledge most often results in poor levels of attainment and achievement.

Importantly, as Prof. Michael Young suggests (Impact, Autumn 2018), the progressive, knee-jerk reaction to the imposition of a seemingly elite, knowledge-based curriculum on state schools has ironically put underprivileged pupils at more of a disadvantage. This is because affluent, middle class children already come to school with wider a knowledge base, thus an emphasis on skills and discovery learning means that these children literally hit the ground running, while those children with deficits in cultural capital, narrower foundations of knowledge and experience, are immediately trumped because they are without the basic knowledge required in order to apply skills effectively. And as Willingham has found, ‘background knowledge is necessary for cognitive skills’ (2009:37), or as I see it, without sufficient know, there is no, know-how.

As Young asserts, ‘as a result, far too many working-class children are denied access to the knowledge that middle-class children take for granted, and an emphasis on ‘knowledge’ is easily interpreted as a form of control and not as a source of emancipation – when of course it is potentially both, (Impact, Autumn, 2018:4).

In others words, ‘they’ might be pouring a lot of elite, middle class knowledge from on high, but let’s use it, own it and make it a tool for the knowledge creators of the future.

For me too, the argument that knowledge is transient, ever changing and always at hand anyway through search engines, only acts as a smoke screen here, as supporters of this argument have missed the fact that knowledge or ‘facts’ never stand alone; new knowledge is born from old knowledge. It is impossible to know what to look for or enquire about, unless you have some knowledge to start with. 

In addition, as Tim Oates rightly points out, ‘talk of constantly changing human knowledge fails to recognise that fundamental paradigm shifts appear very infrequently in disciplines,’ (Impact, Autumn 2018: 17). In other words, the fact that Earth rotates around the Sun is a fact that has been established for hundreds of years, if we treat it as ‘just temporary’ and therefore not necessary to remember, we will run into trouble when we try to understand how time works and how seasons change, plus a whole lot of other bother, I’m sure! For this reason, we need to think clearly when thinking about our curricula. If we down grade knowledge learning in place of allowing kids to ‘follow their own leads’ or ‘just discover,’ are we doing a disservice to those children who have very little with which to start their own self-led learning?

This is not to say that fuelling children’s engagement with content that is rich and interesting should not dominate the curriculum, but as Christine Counsell points out in her article for the Impact journal, we ‘lose our moorings’ when ‘content is chosen for being engaging or deemed ‘relevant by the pupil.’  For me, this highlights the danger of child-led learning trumping those disadvantaged children. After all, if Jonny-Parker Smith has spent the summer on Safari in Kenya, while Danny Jones spent his summer kicking a ball against a wall on a council estate, then starting our new topic on ‘animals’ means that starting with what is ‘relevant to the child,’ will preclude a wealth of knowledge for Danny and pit Jonny far, far ahead from the start. Of course, I have chosen stark stereotypes here, not all poor children live lives that lack richness and interest; equally, not all affluent children have double-barrel names and lead stimulating, erudite lives outside school. However, the fact remains that children arrive at school with varying amounts of background knowledge in subjects and more affluent children tend to have more background knowledge because they have the means to access a wider set of experiences.

So, while we can’t fly Danny to Africa and give him a safari experience, and we can’t blame Jonny for his experiences, nor disregard what he knows, he has as much right learn new and significant things in school, we can feed Danny with an adequate amount of background knowledge so that his project on animals takes him beyond his usual experience and moves him closer to a level playing field– which is as Robbie Burns suggests in his article, what a curriculum should do. 

In Burns’s view, ‘knowledge-led curricula attempt to provide young people with a school experience that enables them to be socially mobile, for this is the core of what social justice is: enabling young people, regardless of socio-economic background, to be provided with the opportunities to succeed, (Autumn, Impact 2018:11).

This is not to say that everything must start and end with fact filled lessons with pupils having no chance to experience the freedom of play and discovering new things on their own; however, if we make this the basis of our curriculum, it seems likely that far from emancipating less affluent children from the knowledge-based curriculum imposed by the ‘elite,’ we could instead be helping to reproduce social inequalities, maintaining and even widening the achievement gap.

One approach that curriculum leaders could use to provide more perspective on these bodies of curricula knowledge is to, as Christine Counsell describes, understand the distinction between substantive and disciplinary knowledge in order to shine a light on ‘powerful knowledge.’ As Christine explains, ‘substantive knowledge is the knowledge that teachers establish as fact’ (Impact, Autumn, 2018:7), such as the subject knowledge lists we find in the national curriculum. While ‘disciplinary knowledge, by contrast, is a curricular term by which pupils learn about how that knowledge was established, its degree of certainty, and how it continues to be revised by scholars, artists, or professional practice,’ (2018:7). When these two types of knowledge are taught, then we give pupils the means to understand what and how ‘powerful knowledge’ comes about; we make them critical thinkers and handlers of knowledge, rather than passive collectors of facts. As Christine asserts, … ‘for pupils learn how knowledge is formed and changed distinguishes a knowledge-rich curriculum grounded in “powerful knowledge” from one merely ossifying a canon.’ In other words, we need to empower all children not only by ensuring they have a breadth of background knowledge in subjects, but also teach them how to be critical, questioning interpreters of that knowledge. This will not happen for children lacking background knowledge if curricula are based on skills or discovery learning.

It is in this way that I would urge curriculum leaders to embrace our knowledge-based curriculum, recognising the opportunities it has to offer less advantaged children by elucidating substantive alongside disciplinary knowledge in subject areas. It is important that we assess both these aspects of knowledge, then it will give all children the freedom to use that breadth of knowledge skilfully. We should also remember that if we want all children to engage in higher order thinking, the thinking that leads to better educational outcomes and life-long learning skills, then this begins with knowledge, while application and synthesis of that knowledge is what follows rather than precedes.


Impact: Journal of the Chartered College of Teaching, Issue 4, Autumn 2018.

Willingham, D.T. (2009) Why don’t children like school, Jossey-Bass.





Running between tables in restaurants…

While on holiday recently, Mr B and I were enjoying dinner together. As some couples do when married for nearly twenty years, we tend to do more people watching than gazing into each other’s eyes over the fois gras (although we never order that as it’s downright cruel – ask a duck). On this particular evening, Mr B spotted a family behind me and became quickly fixated by what he observed.

Being a candid kind of man, he was quick to show his disapproval and incredulity at what he considered ‘diabolicial parenting’ on the table behind me.  I turned discreetly to see a mother and father with two children all eating their supper. The father held a mobile phone in one hand, while using a folk to feed himself with the other. His wife stared into space and his two sons twiddled pasta into their mouths while entranced by an iPad propped up between them.

Knowing my husband’s propensity for expressions of ferocity in the face of many of life’s seeming injustices, both small and large, I attempted to rationalise their behaviour to him.

“Well, don’t worry. Perhaps dad had to do an urgent business email or something…and you never know they might have been talking all day!”  But he was insistent.

“I doubt it – I bet they have those things on in the car instead of looking out the window too. Kids should be enjoying conversation with their parents, that’s what coming to the table is for!”  He was adamant and I had to agree. We have seen this pacification of children many times before in recent years and almost always during  occasions when we had some of the most memorable conversations with our own children.

We tried to continue our meal while Mr B gave me a running commentary of ‘that family behind you’.  After some time, the family finished their silent supper and their plates were cleared.  To his continued annoyance, another iPad appeared allowing both children to have one each. The older boy had previously made several attempts to engage his parents in conversation, even walking around the table a few times, but being offered an iPad to himself  was the pacification his parents sought.

The family then settled down for the rest of their stultified meal, engrossed in their own electronic worlds. Kicking my husband another thirty times under table while asking him to keep his voice down, he reminded me, in as loud a voice as he could, that when our children were little and out with us at a restaurant, they would have been running around now between the tables, or rolling around underneath them, and above all – talking to us!

Yet none of this seemed to reach them, not least I expect because of the language barrier of which I am thankful. Perhaps Mr B’s furrowed brow and piercing looks were considered merely the characteristics of  ‘that uptight English bloke over there….after all, his wife kicks him all the time and tells him to be quiet’.

In a last-ditch attempt to find some solace, Mr B took a surreptitious snap of the family and said, “write about this, you have to.” And so here I am, and here is that photo.

French family 'together'_LI (2)

Seeing as I know nothing about this family, I feel it only fair to say that I can only comment on about an hour and a half of their lives together. It could well be that they have talked and talked all day and this is a rare occurrence for them. Yet I can’t help feel, as Mr B said, that being together and talking ‘is what coming to the table is for’.

The photograph makes me feel sad. Was this a missed opportunity to be together and learn about all the wondrous things those two, lovely boys had in their heads, all the questions they might have asked given the chance, all the anecdotes that could have been shared with them to help shape their ideas and make sense of the world?  This seemed to be made plain by the family a few tables away with two young girls, who were engaged in hearty laughter, loving banter and yes, a few laps between the tables.

And how many times do I witness parents picking their children up from school, leading their child away while transfixed by their phones – emitting only short, stunted answers to their child’s questions, with no urge to interrogate them about their day, let alone point out a different kind of tree and wonder how old it might be, or why lines in the road are yellow and not pink, or why clouds are different shapes, or why soil is always brown. Surely no text is more important than this? No post? No Whatsapp message?  Surely?

Today, we hear that since 1997 the amount of girls self-harming due to severe mental illness has doubled. We know that more and more children need help to navigate themselves through the often problematic psychological expedition of being human. Mental health problems have never been so prevalent in young children. In my experience too as a class teacher, more children find it harder to focus in class for even short periods of time.  How much worse this journey through life must be, if our young children grow up deficient in that closeness that comes  about through those seemingly mundane conversations while sat around sucking up spaghetti together, or walking home hand in hand after a long day at school. These were to me the gold dust of parenthood. They are the crown jewels of memories I carry with me from mothering my two children when they were young. They’re not perfect now. Like all young adults they are arrogant at times, egotistical, vehement in their views (which I adore), naïve too,  and always, always messy (yes, I failed there), but also often wise, thoughtful and inquisitive, and competent communicators. Like all young people they have their moments, their crises and trip ups, but somehow, they know who they are and how to help themselves.

Who can say that this was down to not having mobile phones or iPads at mealtimes, or me not actually owning a mobile phone when I used to pick them up from primary school. I’m sure there’s more to it than that. There are many reasons why children turn out alright or not.  But there is something to this; there is something truly awful about that photograph and what went on around that dinner table. People are losing their children to screens and I’m sure this can’t end well.

I’m sure I will never ever see that family again in my entire life. It’s likely those two boys will grow up into healthy, productive and responsible adults; I hope so. But that evening will stay etched in my mind as a warning that humans need to take great care here. We are a species of  communicators who have broken bread over ancient fires, while telling tales and sharing stories for thousands of years. The young have always tugged at our heels and asked why? and how? And we have learnt about being human by looking into each other’s faces and talking for a while here and there…

What does learning look like?


I’ve written before about learning and performance orientations in schools and the cultures they might produce. In turn, this has also directed me towards the difference in learning and performance right at the chalk face. I ask myself, how can I recognise the difference in my own pupils? How do I know children aren’t just performing; how do I know they’ve really learnt anything at all?

This has always troubled me as a teacher. How do any of us know whether children are learning, particularly in short observations? I’ve watched lessons with colleagues and during our subsequent discussions it seems hard to unravel the real difference between engagement, performance and actual learning. There are a range of poor proxies for learning that stump people into thinking they are witnessing it. Hives of activity, quiet focus, task completion, careful presentation or pages of correct answers can all look like learning.  Most people would agree that engagement is not learning; you can put a class of six-year olds in front of a mickey mouse cartoon and they are engaged, but not necessarily learning anything. Attention and focus maybe prerequisites for learning but can never be learning itself.

Recently, while researching further into the difference between learning and performance, I came across the work of Prof. Robert Bjork. He finds that it is very easy to mistake the two and that education has mixed up learning and performance in all sorts of ways for a long time and with negative consequences for learners and learning.

To begin with, we have to start by distinguishing learning and performance which doesn’t often happen in busy schools where teachers feel the need to ‘get through stuff’ and ‘produce results’. While learning refers to changes in long-term memory as a result of a task, performance merely shows how well pupils do in that task, and these are not the same thing. Learning itself is a hidden phenomenon; it is invisible, but its effects thankfully are not, therefore we can at least infer it has occurred, but the trouble is, not in the ways we might assume we can.

Bjork describes how learning and performance can act as inverse to one another so that when pupils perform particularly well in a task, the transfer of learning to long-term memory might actually be less than if they hadn’t performed as well as they did. Confused? Yes, doesn’t this just run contrary to how most people think about learning. Surely correct answers are a sign of learning?  Well, no. And this counters our intuitive conception of learning if it is possible to get pages of calculations correct, but not learn anything.  We confuse learning and performance in education all the time because as long as there is no change in long-term memory then there is no learning. There might have been recall of items stored in the long- term memory that were then processed in the working memory, hence lots of correct answers, but as long as no new connections have been made – it’s not learning. This is the problem: performance is  not the same as learning. One is showing, demonstrating, revealing what you already know while the other is the real-time creation of knowledge which can only be achieved through breaking through a period of ‘not knowing,’ otherwise known as confusion, misunderstanding, inaccurate thinking or what happens when kids look up frowning and say, ‘I don’t get it.’

No change in long- term memory = no learning.

Recall is not learning

Learning follows on from confusion

We find it hard to accept that struggling to succeed in a task is more likely to result in learning, rather than the straight forward successful completion of that task.  While this might seem obvious to seasoned teachers, it is not obvious to many and especially not children, who will usually avoid making mistakes at all cost. Yet, how many times do we look through books, ticking, tick, ticking away and interpret this as a sign of learning? ‘Oh good, they’ve learnt loads today?’  Except, it seems maybe not – it could be that they just performed the task and learned nothing at all?

Like this, Bjok refers to what he calls ‘desirable difficulties’ in that a task needs to be hard enough to trigger the level of processing that has the potential to shift new knowledge to the long-term memory, but not so hard that the pupil is unable to make any links at all. Just as Goldilocks’ needed it to be ‘just right’ so do learners need tasks to be just right too.  And has Daniel Willingham notes in his new and wonderful book (link below): ‘memory is the residue of thought’ so when learners have to think their way to success rather than just ‘do,’ or recall, then it is more likely that learning takes place.  The tricky task for teachers is  designing tasks that will make children think and as Willingham says, think about the right things! No doubt teachers will wince at those times they set up engaging hook activities only to find that all the children thought about was what people were wearing, or the types of animals in the background instead of the history or geography that was the focus!  I recall opening a fossil topic by burying little plastic dinosaurs in plaster of Paris, believing that this would help the children understand how fossils are formed, but all they talked about afterwards was who had the best dinosaurs with the best colours, not once thinking about the fossilisation process.  This is an example of not thinking carefully about what children are likely to think about when engaged in an activity. Perhaps I would have been better off demonstrating how remains become fossilised first, then let them make their own with less conspicuous dinosaurs? It all says a lot about what we use to hook children into learning and whether this is always necessary or effective.

“Memory is the residue of thought”

We learn what we think about

Design tasks that make children think specifically about what they need to learn

So, is this all just about pitch and putting the right task in front of the right child? Well, that in itself is hard enough; any teacher sat before thirty children will tell you that, but even then how do we know that learning really takes place? As Bjork notes, a teacher can teach something and the pupil seems to understand it, they can talk about it there and then, but then the next time that topic comes up the children appear to have learned nothing at all. Is this not the bane of all teachers and the cause of many a deep sigh while marking books? To our frustration as teachers, we know that learning might look like learning when it isn’t.

We can see and measure performance, but unfortunately current performance is not a reliable indicator that learning has happened and knowledge has been embedded in long-term memory. Conversely there can be considerable learning without much performance at all. Worryingly, performances can dramatically improve with no real effect on learning because with things like mass practice and cramming, pupils can appear to acquire knowledge, but later on it’s as if nothing ever actually happened. It seems that if we don’t get children thinking about the stuff we want them to for long enough and in the right way  knowledge doesn’t fix itself into long-term memory.  When this happens, it’s like writing your name in the air with a sparkler on bonfire night- you see it and you can read it, it’s real, but it quickly disappears. What we need is to write with indelible marker into the memories of our children!

Unless information is thought about enough and in different ways it will never move into the long-term memory. 

Bjork also talks about inadvertantly ‘priming’ pupils so that they appear to get better at tasks because their performance improves. Here, conditions are usually constant and pupils are in effect just repeating brain activity rather than making new connections. If teachers aren’t careful they can trick themselves into thinking children are learning because they mistakenly create an environment that doesn’t disturb this repeated brain activity hence it looks like good, solid learning. However, disrupt this and it soon becomes apparent it’s not. For example, change classrooms, have a supply teacher, use a different presentation format and suddenly this repeated brain activity has to shift, process this other information and that performance you thought was learning is interrupted; all of sudden they appear to have forgotten everything!

For example, you show your pupils how to find fractions by dividing the denominator and multiplying the numerator. You give them a page of fractions sums. At first a few pupils find it a bit tricky so you go back a few times and show them again. Perhaps use concrete resources and images to help them grasp the concept. Then they go ahead and complete a page of sums, getting seemingly more and more proficient. You think, ‘great, my pupils can find fractions of amounts!’  A few days later, someone else takes your class and you  leave them fraction sums to do again as you feel it would be good to consolidate their knowledge while you’re out of class.  When you meet the supply teacher later, they look flustered; no one seemed to understand how to find a fraction. He says he decided to use fractions of money instead but otherwise introduced it just the same way. How perplexing?  What happened when they did all those sheets of sums the first time? Well, not much it seems. With every calculation, the pupils only had to repeat an initial  process rather than do much thinking at all: ‘do this, do this and then you get that,’ but there was little opportunity for links to be created by putting finding fractions into a context or providing some cognitive variation to the process such as a trying it with different units of measurement.   This is why schemes like White Rose are so effective, because they build on variation so that pupils can’t just get into a rut with the fluency of repeated, mass practice. And this is why sheets of sums are not a good way to learn, only perform.

Repeat performances can look like improvements in learning.

Variation in the ways a concept can be thought about help avoid this.

So, it seems we can only know if learning has happened later when we can see evidence of transfer – such as being able to take finding a fraction of an amount and using that to find fractions of other things and in different ways.  It seems that mass practice leads to short-term performance but poor long-term retention. You might feel very pleased that pupils can complete pages of sums , but we need to ask whether this helps to create those links, the changes in long-term memory that mean learning as happened.  As Bjork notes, ‘the more things are massed together, the more you will see apparent benefits in the short term’, like the sheets of correct sums or repeated spellings that are correct. However, the more the learning of a specific things is spaced apart, the more benefit to long- term memory. This means that teachers need to think carefully about the latest craze for ‘slow learning’ where we stay with one block of for example fractions for several weeks. This is fine if we’re providing lots of variation in the fraction learning, but we should also come back to other areas and be deliberate about how we space them into learning cycles.

Bjork speaks extensively about the ‘power of forgetting’ so that when the brain forgets but is then triggered to remember a powerful link is created. In turn, there is benefit from allowing pupils to take a look at difficult material they don’t understand before you give direct instruction on it. There is something about that first moment of confusion and puzzlement that seems to prepare the brain for learning in that area. We have to understand that the brain is hungry to make links – those synapses are like bare wires waiting to zap the first thing they meet so puzzlement is like turning up the electricity a bit just before you make the connection – then whiz the lights come on! So there is real benefit in giving children a short pre-assessment of an area before you teach it, plus if you do that in a dialogic way and listen to them discuss it with their peers you can then pick up on the misconceptions you need to give direct instruction on.

That first moment of confusion and puzzlement prepares the brain for learning in that area.

Children need to feel this often and understand it leads to learning.

Bjork’s work also highlights the very positive effect of interleaving, so setting up learning so that the brain has to switch sometimes to another topic then come back. It’s almost like when you read a tricky paragraph in a paper and you can’t understand it, then you go and do a cross word (or in my case watch a soap opera), then you come back to the paper and somehow, it makes more sense.  It’s as if the connection you started to make around the tricky paper benefited from having that space. As Bjork suggests, for any given retention interval there will be an optimal spacing interval and this will probably be the hard part to gauge as too much spacing and interleaving will start to have a negative effect. This is where the relationship a teacher has with their pupils is integral – a good teacher will intuitively know when it’s right as they get to know  their pupils’ processing levels.  In essence, the conditions that actively produce forgetting like spacing, variation or introducing things in different contexts are the things that enhance learning, but the process needs careful planning and timing – all achieved by knowing pupils well. This also comes from the tactic knowledge of an experienced teacher – so let’s value them! It also tells us that teachers really do need time to plan their lessons and less time taken up with marking, admin and meetings about meetings!

To finish, if education is about anything it is about learning, but what a muddle it finds itself in because of the huge emphasis on accountability which relies so heavily on performances.  Ironically, those performances we need in order to prove that we’re any good will always be fine if we just focus on learning. Educators need to clarify the difference between learning and performance  in their minds and everywhere in schools. When schools openly value learning over performance – they do really well. They are fantastic places to learn and teach in. Teachers and children are focused. Less ticks, more head scratching makes an authentic place of learning.  Pupils should be hungry for confusion and puzzlement, but revel in the solutions they find; this makes learning addictive.  As teachers, we need to design and plan for puzzlement. Then we are really teaching!

Read and hear all about this from the experts:

Robert Bjork’s on line talks

Daniel Willingham’s fabulous book!


Why Hattie’s effect sizes miss the bigger picture…

I am a big Hattie fan. I like him because he’s not afraid to call us all out on the strange things we teachers get up to because ‘that’s the way it’s always been done’. Whether we are teachers or school leaders, we need people like John Hattie in education to remind us to focus on evidence and impact rather than rhetoric or hyperbole. However, his latest comments on  the value of teaching assistants to pupils’ learning is missing something.

Evidence suggests that teaching assistants add little value to pupil achievement and that often in schools the pupils who struggle the most are taught by the least qualified, the teaching assistants. On the face of it, yes this was once a problem and may still be a problem in some schools, but many schools have acted on this mistake and now ensure that children further behind  have the best teaching. It still surprises me that educated people allowed otherwise, but times have changed.  For example, in our school we have switched timetabling and rotas so that teachers themselves do most of the interventions with the children who need to catch up while teaching assistants do more playground duties and supervising classes during assemblies etc. We have prioritised teachers having one to one or small group time with pupils who will benefit from that expertise, rather than as Hattie put it, leaving it to the ‘amateurs’ (which really sounds rather rude, but is technically correct). This has meant teachers have more time targeting those pupils with the greatest need and the impact in evident.

Certainly this proves Hattie’s point that needier pupils require ‘expert’ rather than ‘amateur’ attention, who could possibly argue with this, but this belies the fact that this is often only possible because of teaching assistants covering those other non-teaching activities. Hattie’s condemnation of teaching assistants working with the neediest children is right, but he ignores the extra bandwidth given to teachers who have teaching assistants. For example, having a teaching assistant might mean the difference between it taking two hours on your own to change a display, to half an hour designing material then your TA changing the display while you put that time to marking books and providing detailed feedback to move pupils on. Without that time, perhaps your marking would have been rushed and not as effective – so then what’s the effect size there of not having a teaching assistant? The support teaching assistants give teachers in time by taking care of those peripheral activities cannot be ignored here. We have to acknowledge that time is like gold dust to teachers yet the system is asking more and more of their time.

Lately all  we hear about is the deficit in graduates applying to be teachers; it is likely that sooner or later we will face an critical national shortage in teachers. And why is this? Because we are overloading teachers with  paper work and record keeping because in turn, school leaders are burdened by an accountability and compliance agenda that is literally suffocating schools. Teachers now have more paper work and record keeping demands than ever before. Give them an assistant to tidy the classroom and re-arrange that display thats been ignored for weeks, but kept them awake at night, then we are supporting teachers in coping with workload. It is short sighted in this climate to consider teaching assistants as ineffective without considering the time they give back to teachers. Yes, teachers didn’t have teaching assistants when I started teaching, that’s what all leaders say when they have to take them away from teachers, but then when I started teaching they didn’t have emails, class do jo messages or the kind of paper trails we have now.  Teachers can spend anywhere up to an hour or more a day answering emails or messages from parents, let alone all the other things we weren’t expected to do fifteen years ago. We forget just how the job has changed and why teachers need all the help they can get.

So while I agree wholeheartedly that untrained people should not be assigned to the most needy pupils, I don’t agree with the research rhetoric that teaching assistants don’t add value to a school and this is because no one could measure the effect of a teaching assistant sorting out all my resources while I work with a child at playtime who is a year behind in writing, or the time that might give me to design and create support resources for that child. Some might say that teachers just have to do both, and yes they do need to, and they do, a lot, but if we squeeze teachers any harder, then what?

So, while it’s important to think about impact and how schools use their resources, and ever more so with all the budget cuts, we should also think carefully about those factors that are hard to measure but that everyone knows are valuable. We may very well have to do away with teaching assistants if school budgets are squeezed further, but then we have re-evaluate what we are asking of teachers otherwise we might be faced with having to measure the effect size of a dwindling, worn out teacher workforce.

A ‘bad girl’ reminisces on behaviour management…


(Many people reading this will certainly know about effective behaviour management strategies and my ramblings will seem like old hat – apologies,  but…well, what are blogs for if not to cogitate out loud.)

I met up with an old teaching pal in the holidays, and we got into a discussion about children’s behaviour. It wasn’t long before my old friend poured out her frustration about what was going on at her school detailing how challenging the behaviour had become in this first term. Not an unusual story from any teacher working in an inner- city school. However, it wasn’t long before I realised that her main problem seemed to be the behaviour of some of the adults, and perhaps more so than the children.

It was clear to me that many of the support staff she described were stuck in the belief that behaviour management is about giving out punishments and exacting revenge on poorly behaved children with a view to this improving behaviour? My friend described support staff, and also teachers, who escalated challenging behaviour through their short-sighted belief that consequences for poor behaviour needed to be immediate, publicly humiliating and a very negative experience for the perpetrator.  I recognised this because I have experienced this myself and to an extent that I describe it as toxic.

It all came flooding back to me as I recalled the routinely angry, frowning faces of teachers at my secondary school when children sort their attention in any way they could, fulfilling their teachers’ short-sighted prophesies that these were bad kids destined for bad things. And while this might sound like a Dickensian scene from Hard Times, with one Gradgrind welding his cane high above small heads, this toxic attitude to children displaying challenging behaviour only needs to be held by a few adults for it to ignite into a spiral of negativity that gets worse and worse. This can reach a level so low that the relationship between pupils and adults is so toxic that even being together in the same room becomes a catalyst for poor behaviour.

I know this because I was that pupil who could enter a classroom, register the expectant expression on the teacher’s grim face and know that whatever happened, I would live up to his expectations, threats and humiliations with whatever disruption I could create. Yet, when I walked into another lesson, I could see a smile and experience a shower of positively that would refuse to let my negativity take over. They would not rise to my bait, (which might have been anything from tapping the desk repeatedly, flicking things at neighbours, humming, giggling and sighing so loudly they could hear it next door), but instead they met every cry for attention, every demonstration of insecurity disguised as nonchalance, with an attitude that although firm, clear and decisive was highly positive and positive about me.  This was because teachers like this didn’t make my behaviour about them. Whatever they thought inside, and I’ve no doubt they were intensely annoyed by my antics, they exuded care, calmness and strength. I could not get under their skin.

Challenging behaviour is frustrating and sometimes even frightening. I’m not saying that underneath we don’t feel deep irritation and annoyance when children disrupt lessons, we do, we’re human, but most of the time it serves no one well to show this emotionally. Teaching is as much about the image you bring to the classroom as it is the skills and knowledge you teach. If the image pupils have of you is of someone who is unruffled by challenging behaviour and who really does care how pupils feel then you will get a very different response from even the most angry, unruly children.

I once taught in a school where one boy regularly stood and turned the whole table over before kicking his chair across the room. What I learnt, and I think intuitively knew from my own more low-level behaviour as a pupil, was that meeting that kind of explosion with yet another explosion only creates one big blast! At that school, I learnt that while all behaviour must have consequences, and we need to teach that to children, consequences don’t need to be given immediately and often when they are they only serve to escalate already heightened emotions, when far better to calm things down, then talk about penalties when everyone is cooler. I’ve watched people get themselves into such a knot by listing the consequences to a child, while the child is getting angrier and angrier and more out of control:

“Right, do that again and you’ll have no play today!”

“Ok, right no play!”

“Carry on and you’ll go to Mr Jones!”

“And you’ll have no golden time…. It’s going to be a great one this week as we’re making biscuits too…”

“How dare you act like this is class. And if you break that pencil your parents will pay for it”. 

“Don’t you shrug your shoulders or roll your eyes  at me either!”

 This kind of response to challenging behaviour is just a ridiculous tit-for-tat approach to the situation. The adult here is actually encouraging the child to carry on. Go on, I dare you! It’s like a duel of who can do the worst to each other, and the picking up of the secondary behaviour like breaking a pencil or shrugging shoulders is the icing on the cake. It’s just foolish.  Sadly, over my years of teaching, and visiting  different schools, I’ve seen quite a few seemingly sensible adults take this approach when children are losing it. I’ve also seen adults get right up into pupils’ faces when issuing these kinds of threats and then they wonder why suddenly pupils are tipped over into a whirlwind. It’s as if some adults have watched too many episodes of Prisoner Cell Block H. Think about it, would you do anything for anyone if they threatened you and from a distance two inches from your face? It’s never going to end well, is it?

I remember at this one school; a teaching assistant would regularly come and find me in the staff room to report on what so and so had done. Straight away she would list his crimes and all the rude things he’d said, clearly wanting a reaction from me at the severity of the child’s misdemeanours. Every word was full of sensation, desperate for me to be shocked and outraged and for me to come back with a list of punishments that would follow. In my head, I would say to myself – ‘he’s got to you and now you want to get him back’. And who would deny that this isn’t a natural feeling that anyone would have when a child has been really rude, refused to do what you ask and ruined your lesson. The trouble is – it never works if you come at behaviour from that place. Whereas if you come at it wanting to help that child learn from the situation, learn to manage their emotions then something different happens. Adults dealing with challenging behaviour need to put all their focus on the child, helping them to understand where they’ve gone wrong and how they can make things right again. I wish someone had done that to me much more when I was that agitated young kid.

So, it was with sadness that my friend described all this when talking about her new school.

“It’s as if some of the adults are children themselves,” she lamented. “It’s like they seem to think managing behaviour is about being victorious!” And she was right.

What some people forget is that all behaviour is a form of communication. It’s important to think to yourself, ‘what is this child trying to tell me?’ Sometimes, it might be that they are saving their own self-esteem because it would be better to cause a stink and get sent out than to sit, struggle and fail at yet another learning activity. Sometimes, it might be that they are still holding onto the fact that Fred pushed them while coming into class and no one noticed and now Fred is smiling to himself.  Sometimes they just don’t know how to sit in their own skin and need attention in any way they can get it. Other times, it’s more straight forward, they had no breakfast and they’re too hungry to focus so all they can do it kick out, or it could be they had two hours sleep because of the noisy neighbours or parents arguing. All too often, you will find that there is a reason other then just ‘being naughty’ when children display behaviour above and beyond usual classroom antics. It might seem an insignificant trigger too sometimes, but will mean everything to that child: “You told us to line up in order and Joe didn’t, then when I tried to tell you, you told me to be quiet and you didn’t do anything, then Joe laughed at me.”  Things can seem so meaningless to us, but it’s everything to them – it’s their day, their world. Some children have the resilience to let things go, some haven’t learnt to do that yet and they need to learn what to do when they feel an injustice as happened. What is the they right thing to do when you feel something isn’t fair? What is the right thing to do when you feel bored? When you feel anxious or stressed? What about learning to recognise when you are starting to feel stressed in the first place? I wish someone had helped me like that at school.

Above all though, whatever they throw at us (literally and figuratively) it’s vital we show them that we care and we want them to thrive and succeed at school… and at life.

And they can miss their playtime later…


Lightening the load – how to make big gains in learning by doing less.


There’s so much snake oil in education that when something with the potential to really help learners comes along, there’s a chance it’s overlooked; this mustn’t be the case with cognitive load theory. The evidence to support this theory is compelling and educators should take note. Like much research in education, cognitive load theory has been around quite a while, but has only recently come to the surface for many teachers like me. What strikes me most about the theory is the hard evidence that supports the common-sense idea this theory asserts, which is that often less is more when teaching.

The evidence to support cognitive load theory tells us that we often make two distinct errors in teaching. Firstly, we frequently stifle learning because we overload children’s cognitive processing capacity so that little of what we teach sticks. Secondly, we give children problem solving activities prematurely, before content or skills are properly learnt, which slows down learning, or even prevents it altogether. These two points are driven firstly by mistaken ideas about the distinction between engagement and learning and then how children learn the kind of information we need to teach in school.

To begin with, we need to understand that  learning involves the processing of information in the working memory enough times that it transfers to long-term memory where it becomes unconscious or, what lead theorist John Sweller calls, automatic. Here information is imprinted onto the unconscious mind rather like a foot print pressing into fresh cement which then dries and remains. Information processing in the working memory is more like a foot print in very wet mud which soon disappears.

Another good analogy for the process of transferring from working to long-term memory is learning to drive a car. At first, we have to practice very deliberately, in a very controlled, clunky manner so we process each action and we have to do this a number of times (more for some people as we know).  Then eventually, our driving becomes unconscious and automatic, so much so that we often have that feeling that we have driven a whole journey without thinking about driving once. Usually, this doesn’t mean we were out of control, but rather our unconscious long-term memory was in charge.  This development in how information is processed is the transfer of information from controlled processing to automatic procedure. This is how learning sticks.

Cogntive load diagram

Now we experience distraction, engagement and learning (hopefully) in the classroom, but teachers are not routinely trained in understanding cognitive capacity. We recognise when children don’t learn, but it’s always hard to pin point why. Sweller asserts that working memory in most healthy humans can process around 3 to 4 ‘elements’ for around 20 seconds. This means that working memory is small and information doesn’t hang around in it for long at all, like that foot print in the soggy mud.

Cognitive elements are not the same for each person or for each set of information and they will change as learners develop, but essentially elements are chunks of information the mind processes. A very basic example might be the word frog. This might comprise of one element for an experienced reader, but f-r-o-g might then be comprised of four elements for a beginner reader. However, the working memory can only hold around four of these in a short period of time before that information is lost.

Now, when giving instruction to pupils there are two factors we teachers have misunderstood, or simply never thought about. Firstly, the limitation in the working memory and secondly the breadth of extraneous auditory and visual cognitive information created through either poor instruction, or an overloaded classroom environment. Put simply, when we create for example, an all singing, all dancing power point  to teach say column addition, it’s likely that the juicy information on how to actually add in columns doesn’t stick because the working memory of those pupils looking at that PowerPoint is overloaded with extraneous visual elements, or what Sweller refers to as ‘redundant information’ (Sweller calls this the redundancy effect).

Below is an example of the kind of power point page or flip chart I have seen many times in primary classrooms (in fact, I’ve seen many more that are even busier!) Now, clearly the maker of the page has gone to quite a bit of trouble to make it appealing to young children and help support pupils learning how to add in columns. However, it is likely that there is too much visual information to process here. In addition, the teacher will probably be talking at the same time to explain each part; they might even have music on to supposedly ‘settle’ the children – all adding more auditory information to the cognitive load.

busy powerpoint.png

The mind processes large amounts of information without us realising it, so while a child might try hard to take in the main points (adding units and then tens) their cognitive capacity will be bursting at the seams with two sets of basic instructions, a colourful bee character, leaves, grass, arrows, boxes… and so on.  It’s no wonder children might go back to their tables to add numbers and be unclear on what to do.

Cognitive load theory suggests that when we cut out the extraneous, ‘redundant’ information it will be easier to process. We cannot say for certain how many cognitive elements are on that page for each pupil, but cutting down visual and auditory extras will help pupils process the content we want them to. According to cognitive load theory, we are less likely to overload the working memory when instruction is pared down, such as with the page below for example.

Pared down powerpoint

Then the right information is more likely to be held in the working memory ready to be applied to repeated practice so that all important imprinting takes place and information is transferred to the long-term memory.

Learning through problem solving

Often as teachers we like to give children problem solving activities. We like these because they promote collaboration, dialogue and we believe they help children to develop their thinking skills. Learning through enquiry or discovery learning has come about through considering how children learn for example, how to speak and walk. In these situations, children aren’t given direct instructions from others on how to speak or walk, but rather they seem to learn by soaking up the skills and knowledge and simply ‘having a go’. This seemingly natural process of learning has been thought to also work when giving children problem solving activities. This is in the hope that by solving problems children learn how to solve problems.

However, according to Sweller, the information we want children to learn in schools isn’t the same as speaking or walking because humans have evolved to learn to walk and speak. This is, as Sweller asserts, ‘knowledge through instinctive acquisition’.  However, humans have not, for example, evolved to learn how to add in columns – this is what Sweller refers to as ‘non-instinctive knowledge’. In essence, some information we are pre-programmed to soak up and other information we aren’t born with the programming for, but only the capacity to learn it from others in a deliberate way.  Sweller calls this type of information, ‘knowledge absent from the natural world’.  Put simply, leave a bunch of homo sapiens on their own and they won’t learn algebra, but they will learn to communicate and walk about.

Essentially, this type of non-instinctive knowledge is learnt more efficiently from a more knowledgeable other who instructs or ‘teaches’ that information. According to Sweller, it is in this way that society or communities of people might remain illiterate or innumerate unless another human intervenes and teaches.  Because of this, it is very difficult to learn non- instinctive knowledge through problem solving. Children look busy and engaged when problem solving, but not much is being transferred from the working to the long-term memory because all that processing capacity is involved in lots of extraneous content outside the specific knowledge to be learned, as well as simply finding a means to an end rather than processing content information.

This is not to say that human beings can’t learn through problem solving at all, it’s just a slower, less efficient kind of learning. For example, a human being could get in a car for the first time (with the key in the ignition) and after much trial and error work out how to drive the car; many people won’t ever work out how to drive it though. However, we all know that having direct instruction from another will dramatically change this. This is why we have driving instructors… and teachers for that matter.  Like this, when it comes to the knowledge outside our natural evolutionary instinct, this is the best way to learn. Obtaining information from another is more efficient than learning through problem solving.  As Sweller notes, problem solving remains a ‘secondary option.’ Personally, when it comes to my son learning to drive, I’m glad I took the first option even though it cost an arm and a leg!
For example, a teacher might use this problem below in an attempt to help children learn their number bonds to ten:

NUmber bonds to 10.png

A child might spend a while with a set of 10 pencils and finally work out the answer is 7, but it’s likely they won’t have learnt about number bonds or how to solve missing number problems either. This would be much more appropriate to give to children who have learned their number bonds and how to solve missing number problems, then they can retrieve that information from their long-term memory and apply it to the problem. This retrieval of information back from the long-term memory to use in processing within the working memory also embeds information further into long-term memory. This is why returning to topics once they are learned is important.

In summary, cognitive load theory gives us the evidence that we need to cut down extraneous material when teaching and this might include doing away with busy displays too close to the area where the teacher gives instruction, cutting out background music and certainly reducing the redundant information in instruction materials like power ponuts  or flip charts. We must not be side tracked by wanting to engage children at the expense of learning. In addition, we also need to avoid using problem solving as a teaching tool, but rather use it as an ‘embedder’ when content and the problem-solving skills required have been learned.

The good news is that I now have a great excuse to cut down the time I spend making power points and displays! At last a theory about ‘load’ that cuts down load! What more do you want!

My grateful thanks to John Sweller for his generosity and advice. John Sweller is Emeritus Professor at the School of Education, University of New South Wales, Australia.

Reference: Sweller. J (1994) COGNITIVE LOAD THEORY, LEARNING DIFFICULTY, AND INSTRUCTIONAL DESIGN. Laming and Insbuction, Vol. 4, pp. 293-312, 199 available here 

Another useful paper by John Sweller and Paul Chandler