Time for sleep

Sleep does not discriminate. Everybody needs to sleep. It is so pivotal in our wellbeing and has such an impact on our day to day function that its relationship to teaching and learning cannot be ignored.

I listened to a podcast recently with Mark Healy, a senior leader and psychology teacher up in Scotland, in which he discussed the importance of sleep for both students and staff. There is an argument that without being fully rested and therefore being alert, awake and able to take on new ideas, there is little point in worrying about other factors important in teaching such as Cognitive Load Theory or Metacognition. Our working memory capacity will not be as large, we will not be able to process or retrieve information or strengthen memories as readily, and our decision making will be impaired. So maybe sleep is the real fundamental, both for allowing students to make the most of their time in school and for teachers who need to be able to get new ideas across.

There is no single reason but many competing theories as to why we sleep. Briefly, Restoration Theory says that we use sleep to repair ourselves physically and mentally; the Information Consolidation Theory posits that learning during the day is consolidated at a synaptic level during the night whilst sleeping; and Energy Conservation suggests that sleep’s primary function is to reduce energy demand and expenditure when it is least efficient to search for food.

What is clear (certainly to anyone who has ever cared for a young baby!) is that sleep deprivation does not make for a productive following day. Although as teachers we can rarely influence the amount of sleep our students are getting, understanding a little more about it may help us to see the bigger picture. It may also provide a catalyst for starting to discuss sleep with the teenagers we work with and start to help them understand why good sleep habits are so important. It is also vital that we are thinking about our own sleep health as teachers.

Sleep works differently in adolescents to adults and whilst we may not be able to change our policies or school day to mitigate this, it is important to be aware of. In humans the secretion of melatonin by the pineal gland serves as a cue for the biological clock and promotes the feeling of drowsiness. In adolescents, the secretion of melatonin is put back by about two hours compared to adults and this greatly influences their sleep cycles: this is called the circadian shift. This can have an effect similar to jet lag – we are expecting teenagers to wake up early and get to school in the week, but they tend to stay up and wake up much later at the weekend, putting them in a perpetual state of catch-up. It is worth considering what effect this could have on their working habits and how the amount of study we expect them to do is affected by this.

It is no surprise that sleep is also linked to anxiety. In a study by Monti and Monti (2013), children with Generalised Anxiety Disorders found it much more difficult to get to sleep, often lying awake for hours trying to fall asleep (known as sleep latency). This in turn heightened their anxiety, which exacerbated the problem. This is worth consideration in our current Covid-19 situation where levels of anxiety for both children and adults could be heightened already.

Teachers often have high workloads and need to remember how important it is to look after themselves, and this includes getting enough sleep. Mark Healy talks about the “Ten Commandments of Sleep Hygiene” which he shares with his staff:

  1. Try not to exercise too late in the day, try to slow the body down
  2. No naps after 3pm
  3. Have an alarm for stopping working in the evening and an alarm for bedtime
  4. Don’t have caffeine or nicotine after 5pm and do not use alcohol as a sedative
  5. Avoid large meals too late at night
  6. Avoid medicines that might delay or disrupt your sleep
  7. Try to find a routine to slow you down and stick to it, for example reading, walking the dog or watching a film, and ideally don’t work in the evening
  8. Keep your bedroom room cool, open a window
  9. Keep your bedroom gadget-free, or at least get rid of the blue light by changing to a softer yellow light setting, and don’t have your work emails on your personal phone
  10. Try to get exposure to the light during the day by getting outside and finding a “bright spot”
  11. Caffeine has a half-life of three to five hours, meaning that it will take that amount of time for half of the caffeine to disappear from your system.

Sleep is a complex topic there are lots of related factors and I have only scratched the surface here. For further information I would recommend the following:


Mark Healy’s presentation at #PLGaitherin’ in May 2020

“Why we sleep” – a book by Matthew Walker

Deb Friis

Deb is a maths teacher at Durrington High School. She is also a Maths Research Associate for Durrington Research School and Sussex Maths Hub Secondary Co-Lead and will be delivering our training on the EEF Guidelines for KS2 and 3 Maths.

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Overcoming Challenges to Learning

The diagram above by Oliver Caviglioli is one of the most useful diagrams I have come across for teachers.  I wish I would have seen it when I started teaching!  I think it summarises the learning process beautifully and is invaluable when it comes to thinking about and planning how we teach.  It’s a great reminder of a number of key ideas from cognitive science:

  • We need to do everything we can to ensure that the attention of our students is focused on the thing we want them to be learning.
  • Our aim as teachers is to get things into the working memory and then to the long term memory.  An understanding of Cognitive Load theory is essential for this.
  • Long term memory is an interconnected and well-organised network of all the ideas and knowledge we know – called schema (represented by the cauliflower poking out of the head in the diagram!).
  • We remember things by linking them onto our existing schema.  For example, as a biologist I have a good and existing schema around immunity and vaccinations.  So when I hear about the new COVID vaccination, I can make sense of this quickly and remember it, because I graft it on to this existing schema.
  • If we don’t retrieve things from our long-term memory on a regular basis, we forget them.  So regular retrieval practice is an essential part of strengthening memory.  In the words of Daniel Willingham, ‘Memory is the residue of thought‘.

It’s really powerful to have an understanding of this as a teacher, as it will benefit the learning of all the students we teach.  It’s particularly important to be using this to understand the challenges to learning that our students who are educationally disadvantaged will be facing.  I am fortunate to work with Marc Rowland, who works with hundreds of schools up and down the country on this.  Marc encourages school leaders to think about the following question:

“How does educational disadvantage affect the learning of pupils in our school?”

This encourages us to think about our disadvantaged students as individuals, understand the challenges they are facing as individuals and then think about how our teaching can support this.  This is different from the less effective approach of seeing disadvantaged students as a homogenous group, with the same issues that will be solved by a common approach.

So what might these challenges be and how can we use what we know about learning to address them?

Struggling to pay attention – For some students, paying attention in lessons and focusing on the information that the teacher is delivering will be challenging.  Rather than leaving this to chance and hoping that it will improve, there are some explicit approaches we can employ that will help with this.  In this blog Jack Tavassoly-Marsh suggests the following areas to focus on, in order to support attention:

  • How students enter the classroom
  • Under what conditions the first task is carried out
  • How a teacher gains whole-class attention
  • How students should participate in paired discussion
  • How students should work during independent practice
  • How students should listen during question and answer phases
  • How a teacher transitions from the instructional phase to students working
  • Using questioning strategies such as ‘cold call’, ‘no opt out’ and ‘right is right’
  • How students exit the classroom

Supporting a limited working memory – evidence suggests that the capacity of our working memory is probably fixed and will be more limited in some people than others.  So for example, whilst some people might struggle to cope with managing  2-3 pieces of information at any one time, others might be OK with 4-5.  If we know this to be the case for some of our students, we can support them with this.  In this blog, Andy Tharby explains how, for example:

1. Outsource working memory by providing scaffolding that fades away incrementally.

2. Provide the conditions that help students to practise key skills and concepts to automaticity.

3. Centralise the development of long-term memory through careful curriculum planning.

This matters because if the working memory becomes overloaded then new information is less likely to enter the long-term memory.  Andy then goes on to discuss approaches we can employ in our lessons to support this further, for example:

  • Teaching in short bursts.
  • Avoiding split attention.
  • Reducing redundant information on lesson resources.
  • Using worked examples.
  • Presenting new information verbally and visually

Limited background knowledge and vocabulary – for those students who are educationally disadvantaged, it is possible that their schema will be less developed than their peers from a more advantaged background.  This will certainly be the case if they haven’t been encouraged to read widely and just generally discuss the world around them.  This will make it more challenging to grow and develop their long-term memory and the rich vocabulary that is so important if they are going to be successful and confident learners.  We can support this by carefully scaffolding our questioning of these students to elicit this knowledge and supporting them to activate the prior knowledge they need to access the new material.  In this blog, Alex Quigley shares some strategies  we can use use to help students grow their vocabulary by building their schema.

These first points have clear implications for how we explain new ideas and knowledge to students:

  • Break our explanations into chunks.
  • Tether it what they already know.
  • Keep it focused on what you want them to learn – avoid superfluous detail.
  • Use worked examples.
  • Use verbal and visual resources at the same time.

Limited thinking and limited retrieval – if students are not encouraged to review and discuss the work they do at school, at home, they will not be retrieving it from their long term memory and so over time, the material will soon be forgotten.  There are ways we can support this:

  • Ensuring our curriculum is coherent and well sequenced . It needs to be structured in such a way that there are opportunities to revisit and build upon key knowledge.
  • Use low stakes quizzing at the start of lesson to retrieve key knowledge.
  • Use Cornell note taking every lesson to support retrieval practice.
  • Ensuring homework have an element of retrieval in them – not just for content that has been covered that week, but revisiting work that was done last month and last term.  This will only be effective of course if there are strong processes and systems in place to ensure that students do their homework.

Will these approaches solve all the issues around educational disadvantage? No.  It’s a complex problem, involving a variety of interconnected issues.  What these approaches will do though, is give our teaching the best chance of being successful.  This, combined with a ‘thousand little moments‘ will go a long way towards tackling the stubborn problem of educational disadvantage.

By Shaun Allison

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Using SPDS to draw together our T&L foci

At Durrington we have Subject Planning and Development Sessions (SPDS). These are fortnightly meetings within curriculum teams, that provide the opportunity to develop subject and pedagogical knowledge and ideas within the subject domains You can read more about our SPDS here.

As a school our whole school approach to improving teaching and learning is revolving around 5 main foci:

  1. Developing metacognitive skills and self-regulating learners
  2. Formative assessment
  3. Disciplinary Literacy
  4. Memory
  5. Cognitive load theory

These themes are embedded into everything we do, with them being regularly revisited at staff meetings, INSET’s, leader’s meetings and also being used to form the basis of our teacher inquiry questions (read more about these here). The purpose of SPDS is to consider and plan for how these principles should look in the subject specific and forthcoming teaching content, rather than a generic discussion of these principles. This is vital to successful implementation, as many of these principles themselves are only ever successful when applied in subject domains. For example, the metacognitive approaches to completing a piece of art work will differ in some ways to those involved in completing an essay in English literature, while what is formatively assessed and how this will be done will be different in a PE lesson to a Computing lesson.

SPDS offer an opportunity to consider how these priorities can be applied to what we are teaching in the coming weeks – they are the conduit for us as subject experts and teachers to draw these ideas together into actionable plans for teaching. This can be easier said than done, and it is important to remember, that we shouldn’t be trying to shoe horn aspects of each foci into every lesson.

I have been talking about this with other staff recently, and this provided me with the opportunity to reflect and plan how this can be best achieved. In one of these conversations I used an example of a how our Geography department might use a SPDS to plan for the upcoming teaching of plant adaptions in the tropical rainforest. We would normally spend a minimum of two lessons on this. Having decided on this we would begin to think about what of the T&L priorities would best fit and be the center of our focus when teaching these lessons; and consider how these would look in the context of these lessons.

Disciplinary Literacy:

You can read more about disciplinary literacy in this blog by Fran Haynes, but in a nutshell it refers to the reading, writing, talking and thinking practices that are unique to specific subjects. As reading and writing are entwinned, students that are better at reading within their subject are likely to be better writers within that subject. In an attempt to develop this, the SPDS prior to teaching this above lessons may be used to look for a piece of academic text on the challenges of the tropical rainforest environment or the adaptions of tropical rainforest. Discussions in SPDS may involve the staff reading the text, identifying vocabulary that students may struggle to understand and considering how we may explicitly teach what makes the piece of work a successful piece of geographical writing -for example the causal connectives used to link adaptions to climatic characteristics. In doing so we can support students to apply these skills in their own talk and writing.

Formative Assessment:

The second lesson is likely to begin with a review of the first lesson’s learning, the SPDS may be used to create a set of multiple-choice questions to include common misconceptions and plausible incorrect answers to act as distractors. The SPDS discussion may be used to plan how the answers to this can be elaborated on to ensure students are asked to think deeply, fully assess understanding and to ensure staff have considered how to re-teach material if an incorrect answer is given. For example, if the question was “Name the process by which nutrients are washed from the soil by precipitation”, the potential answers may be as follows:

a) Leaching              b) Surface Runoff             c) Latosol             d) Uptake

The correct answer here would be leaching, but the SPDS could be used to consider why students may choose an incorrect answer and what to do if this is the case. For example if the students chose answer B, this would suggest a misunderstanding of dead matter being washed directly off the surface vs the loss of nutrients from within the soil – as such this part of the nutrient cycle may need re-teaching and staff can prepare for this.

The second lesson would likely conclude with students answering a 6 mark question such as “Explain how tropical rainforest vegetation has adapted to its physical environment”. SPDS can be used to come to a consensus across the team in regards to what we are looking for in this answer when reading student books, the extent to which this is seen can then be used to direct future teaching.

Metacognition and Self-regulation

By planning to use a 6 mark question as the end point of the lessons, the SPDS also provide a great opportunity for the Geography team to discuss how they will explicitly model the metacognitive approaches we as subject experts would take to planning, monitoring and evaluating a response to this question. This may even take the form of one member of the team modelling to the rest of the department how they would answer this question with their students – for example demonstrating the questions they may use to draw out student planning (i.e. how many parts could you split this task into – in this case 3 developed points) or showing when/where/how they would explicitly direct students to monitor their progress through the answer.

Cognitive load theory

Learning about tropical rainforest adaptions has a high level of intrinsic load – for example there is a vast amount of tier 3 vocabulary for students to learn (i.e. latosol soil, buttress roots, epiphytes) and these need to be explicitly connected to the environmental conditions which requires factual knowledge (i.e. 2% sunlight reaching the forest floor). It is therefore important that any SPDS intended to support the teaching of this considers how we can reduce the extraneous load of how we deliver the material. The SPDS may be therefore used to create a work sheet template making links between the adaption and the environment explicit, or as we often do in Geography consider how dual coding theory can be used to utilize imagery to support learning and retention.

An example of using imagery to reduce cognitive load and support retention

Hopefully the example above shows how SPDS (or general department meetings if this is what you use) can support the implementation of teaching and learning strategies. While I have chosen a Geography example as that is my subject, I know that similar discussions are happening in SPDS all across Durrington

By Ben Crockett (@BenCrockett1)

Ben is an Associate Senior leader at Durrington High School. He is also a Research School Associate for Durrington Research School and will be delivering our training on “Effective Use of the Pupil Premium Fund” with Marc Rowland.

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What’s The Plan?

We would tell our students it is a bad idea to get on a train if you don’t know where it is going. Or maybe we wouldn’t. It’s been a long half-term.

Similarly, we would advocate that students only embark on a piece of work having considered the destination of the task. However, most of us will at some point have found difficulties in getting students to properly plan their work. Often the only time the lack of a plan is revealed is when we view the finished product.

The answer to this problem may lie, at least in part, in the teaching of metacognition and self-regulation.

As the diagram above shows, planning is one element of metacognitive regulation and as such is one of the most important ways students can purposefully direct their own learning. The model above is essential a nine part model of thinking, as each part of metacognitive knowledge relates to each part of metacognitive regulation individually. So, when it comes to planning, there is planning linked to the task, planning linked to strategies and planning linked to self.

To exemplify this further if a highly metacognitive student was about to write a history essay, the sort of thought processes they would go through might look like this:

Planning & task:

  • What type of essay is this? Does it need a particular approach?
  • Is this an essay I need a conclusion for?
  • What was the feedback I was given last time I wrote one of these essays? How can I improve on that?

Planning & strategies:

  • What is the strategy for decoding these questions? Do I know all the steps?
  • How do I start my paragraphs?
  • What is my strategy for writing a clinching argument?

Planning & self:

  • Where do I get stuck when I’m writing essays? How can I unstick myself?
  • What are the parts I always forget when I’m writing. How can I remind myself?
  • I tend to run out of time because I lose focus. How can keep on track?

Some of this might be written down but much of it would be thinking and therefore hidden from us. I’ve used a history example as that’s my subject but the same process would apply to any subject and would equally apply to primary, secondary or further education. Planning doesn’t necessarily mean a written plan, it refers to how we think about the goal of our learning and consider how we will approach the task. That might be a written plan but doesn’t have to be.

The challenge is how we get more of our students going through the same mental checklists that the model student above has gone through in as many lessons as possible. The answer is the explicitly teach them how to do it. Some of our students will have picked up the ability to plan along the way in certain subjects as their teacher has modelled the processes they go through. However, the evidence on metacognition tells us that if we can explicitly teach the thinking we go through as experts, we have a greater chance of students following these processes. This means not just modelling the planning strategies you use, but also explaining why you use them and what you are thinking about as you’re using them.

One simple way to develop students’ ability to self-regulate their planning is to ask questions or give simple tasks that prompt them to reflect on planning and why it is worth doing. Some examples of these would be:

Planning & task:

  • How many parts could you split this task into?
  • What are the different skills that you have to demonstrate in this task?
  • Rank these skills from the ones you find easiest to the ones you find most difficult.
  • What feedback were you given the last time you completed a task like this?

Planning & strategies:

  • What strategies do you know that would help you plan for this task?
  • When we did this last time, which strategies worked and which didn’t?
  • Make a list of all the different things you are going to do to complete this task.
  • Pick apart this finished version (worked example), what makes it good?

Planning & self:

  • Where do you tend to get stuck?
  • How good are you are you at finishing in the given time?
  • Is this a task you find easy or difficult? Why?
  • How often do you make a plan on paper or in your head for these tasks?

These questions are obviously generic and the teaching of metacognition and self-regulation works best when it is done in a very domain or subject specific way. Therefore, my suggestion would be to adapt these questions to suit your context. Clearly, not all of them could be used all of the time as it would inhibit the practice you want to students to engage with, so a selective approach would be best.

Do not expect overnight results with this, as teaching students to be metacognitive planners is a long-term endeavour. However, with persistence we may just get them to think about the destination before boarding the train.

‘Chris Runeckles is an assistant headteacher at Durrington High School.  He is also an assistant director of Durrington Research School and will be delivering our training on Metacognition and Memory

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Whole-Class Feedback: Making It Work at a Distance

It is well documented in the world of educational research that feedback is one of the most effective strategies for improving students’ learning in the classroom. However, whilst feedback can be a huge power for good it can also be a double-edged sword: Get it wrong and the damage can be lethal, in educational terms at least.

Whole-Class Feedback: A Popular Move

According to Dylan Wiliam, in order for feedback to be effective, it should be harder work for the student than the teacher and it needs to be productive: ‘If students do not use the feedback to move their own learning forward, it’s a waste of time’. Accordingly, in recent years there has been a widespread move among classroom teachers to use whole-class feedback. The advantages of whole-class feedback include:

  • It is time efficient, and this has positive implications for staff workload.
  • It allows the teacher to spot common mistakes and misconceptions.
  • It can inform your teaching in a meaningful way – the time you save making individual comments (which are often repetitive) can now be spent planning how to address the issues you have identified in lessons.

Whole-Class Feedback in Socially Distant Times

There is no doubt that whole-class feedback can be hugely beneficial for staff and students alike. However, there are also instances where it does not quite hit the spot, and with teaching time at a premium in schools, this is a loss we want to avoid.

An example of where whole-class feedback can potentially miss the mark is in the use of  feedback targets. For example, a teacher may take in a set of books and identify the common areas that need to improve for that class. In response, the teacher writes a series of targets and allocates one or two of these to each student. Following some careful whole-class input from the teacher, the students are then asked to improve their work by acting on their targets. This practice in itself is not problematic but, all too often, there are some students who need further and perhaps more specific support in identifying and working on their mistakes.

Unfortunately, useful in-class strategies such as live marking, especially the use of questions, and providing verbal one-to-one support for personalising feedback, are not available to us in current times. This leaves us with somewhat of a conundrum: What can we do in order to give helpful, personal feedback without descending back down a dark hole of slavishly writing comments in every book?

Mixing it Up

A possible solution is to combine the best elements of whole-class feedback with a teeny, tiny bit of old-school style marking. This could look something like this:

  1. Firstly, plan the lesson carefully so that only an ‘atom’ is being taught and therefore the focus for feedback is narrowed (see Deb Friis’s blog here).
  2. When students have produced a piece of work that would benefit from feedback, take it away to look at. This could be work in books, assessments or recorded performances.
  3. Look through the work to spot common errors and misconceptions. Make a first list of what you find and a second list of students who have good examples but who are also making these mistakes.
  4. At the same time, put a ‘marker’ of some kind next to the work where it needs improving, but nothing else! Use two markers if there is more than one mistake in that section, but a maximum of two is plenty. In the example below, red dots are used next to sentences that contain mistakes.
  5. When finished, plan how you will reteach the things on your list.
  6. In the lesson, start by explicitly teaching what has gone wrong.
  7. Next, use the selected examples to model how to fix the ‘markers’ by using what has just been taught.
  8. Then students can then improve their work by finding and ‘fixing’ their individual markers. The input from earlier in the lesson should make this eminently possible. 
  9. Crucially, give students a chance to work on these targets again to move their learning forward This would be an ideal opportunity for a metacognitive approach:
        • What did I find challenging last time?
        • How do I overcome this challenge?
        • What do I need to check for as I work today?

Finally, it seems fitting to end with these words from Dylan Wiliam who sums up how feedback is about much more than knowing how to fix a problem on a page:

…The thing that really matters in feedback is the relationship between the student and the teacher. Every teacher knows that the same feedback given to two similar students can make one try harder and the second give up. When teachers know their students well, they know when to push and when to back off. Moreover, if students don’t believe their teachers know what they’re talking about or don’t have the students’ best interests at heart, they won’t invest the time to process and put to work the feedback teachers give them.

Fran Haynes

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Taking small steps: the process of atomisation

With returning to teach classes post-lockdown we have all had to adapt our approaches somewhat to match the situations we find ourselves teaching in. For me it has made me revisit aspects of Explicit Instruction (see this article here) and also Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction. I want mainly to be able to teach “from the front” to avoid too much movement around the room, yet I still want to know how all my students are doing and make sure that none of them get left behind.

A specific aspect I have been thinking about recently is Rosenshine’s Principle no.2:

“Present new material in small steps: Only present small amounts of new material at any time, and then assist students as they practise this material.”

This also ties in with the National Centre for Excellence in Teaching Mathematics (NCETM)’s 5 Big Ideas of Teaching for Mastery: “Small steps are easier to take”.  From this comes the process of atomisation*:

Atomisation – separating something into fine particles. atomization, fragmentation. division – the act or process of dividing.

In order to support all of my class in moving forward together, I have been trying to use the process of atomisation to break down each topic into really small steps and then to teach each one of these explicitly. As teachers we have the Curse of Knowledge – we sometimes make the assumption that an aspect of a concept is obvious to students because it is obvious to us and it takes a bit of thinking on our part to overcome this.

For example, I am about to teach rearranging formulae to my lower attaining year 8 group. Questions are often phrased as “Make x the subject of the formula…” which in itself is quite a complex sentence, so I am going to begin my lesson just by identifying what the subject of a formula is, and then getting students to tell me when x is the subject of the formula, and when it isn’t, so that they are really clear about what they are going to be asked to do. My small steps for this topic might be:

  • Identify what the subject of a given formula is
  • Identify when x is the subject and when it isn’t
  • Understand inverse operations
  • Perform inverse operations in one-step equations
  • Be able to perform inverse operations in the correct order in multi-step equations
  • Perform a check that the formula now has the correct subject

It is a really useful activity for a department meeting to try to identify the atoms of a particular process or topic at first individually, and then by comparing with colleagues. It can also be helpful to “write a line, miss a line” and then try to fill in the blank spaces with atoms that might have been missed first time around, and hence break the process down into smaller and smaller atoms.

The process of atomisation really helps me as a teacher to consider the micro-decisions that I am making every time I solve a problem and to make sure that I am supporting my students in making these as well. I can then use formative assessment in the classroom to find out as I am teaching which atoms my class are already fluent in, and which I need to give them more practise in before we move on. This small-steps approach should mean that I bring all the class along with me, addressing gaps and misconceptions on the way.

*Term coined by Bruno Reddy. Further reading: Naveen Rizvi, Kris Boulton and Ben Gordon have written extensively on atomisation, as has Craig Barton in both of his books and Emma McCrea in Making Every Maths Lesson Count.

Deb is a maths teacher at Durrington High School. She is also a Maths Research Associate for Durrington Research School and Sussex Maths Hub Secondary Co-Lead and will be delivering our training on the EEF Guidelines for KS2 and 3 Maths.

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Gonna Get Myself Connected

By Andy Tharby

It is a truth universally acknowledged that we learn something new by connecting it to what we already know.

Sometimes we consciously construct these connections but, more often than not, they work their alchemy below the level of conscious thought. When I read that ‘the phalanger is a marsupial’ I immediately connect this new piece of knowledge to my pre-existing schema for marsupials (schemas are frameworks of knowledge that are organised in our long term memories). If, however, I do not have a schema for marsupials stored away somewhere, it is unlikely that I will realise that a phalanger probably has a pouch and lives somewhere in the Antipodes. Without some sort of connection between new and prior knowledge, no learning is likely to happen.

Learning is all about making links, forging connections and unearthing new associations. Many of the recommendations for teachers that come from the field of cognitive science are based on this principle. ‘Retrieval practice’ is the act of connecting a cue (or a clue) to something already stored in memory. ‘Elaborative interrogation’ is the act of asking why something is true by connecting it with prior knowledge. ‘The generation effect’ is the act of creating new knowledge by connecting together the fragments of what we already know.

Many so-called ‘higher thinking skills’ – such as analysis, evaluation, comparison and synthesis – are simply jazzed-up versions of the same thing: finding relationships between seemingly disconnected bits of information. Even the sacred skill of ‘creativity’ consists of welding together sounds, shapes or words in unique and unexpected ways.

Putting theory to one side, what does all this mean for classroom teaching and curriculum planning?

The answer lies in the creation of tasks and questions that give students plenty of opportunities to forge imaginative and interesting connections …

Connect Backwards

Students find links between a new topic and one they have studied previously – e.g. find three similarities between volcanoes, our new topic, and coastal erosion, our previous topic.

Connect Sideways

Students find links within a topic – e.g. find three differences between Mr Birling and Mrs Birling from An Inspector Calls.

Connect Forwards

Students make a prediction based on their prior knowledge – e.g. taking into account everything we know about x, what do you think we will learn about y?

Connect Outwards

Make a link between the subject content and the world outside the classroom – e.g. can you think of any recent historical events that connect with the concept of capitalism?

Same, Same (But Different)

Take two very similar concepts and explore the differences – e.g. what is the difference between love and romance? Is love necessary for romance?

Phrase as a Comparison

An old trick this. Ask questions that compel students to compare two concepts rather than a straightforward question about a single concept – e.g. ‘how is a triangle different from a square?’ will better unpick a student’s understanding of triangles than ‘what is a triangle?’.

Describe the connection

Often we ask students to find a connection when we would be better served by asking them to describe a connection – e.g. describe the connection between a volcano and an earthquake’ is a far more intellectually rigourous question than ‘what can you think of that’s similar to a volcano?’

Odd One Out

Once again, this works best when concepts contain similar surface features – e.g. ‘which is the odd one out – the kangaroo, the phalanger or the platypus?’

And finally, just for fun …

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Teacher Inquiry Questions

At Durringtion High School, our teachers are currently thinking about their inquiry question, as a part of the appraisal process.  Each teacher reflects on their classroom practice and identifies an aspect of their teaching that they want to refine and develop over the coming year.  This is then used to create an ‘inquiry question’ that will help to drive and focus the development of this aspect of their teaching, using the following structure:

‘What impact does [what practice?] delivered [over how long?] have on [what outcome?] for [whom?]’

Here are two examples of inquiry questions that teachers have used previously:

  • What impact does interrogative questioning delivered during the course of the year have on deeper understanding of key concepts to improve attainment for my KS4 classes?
  • What impact does explicit teaching of and retrieval practice of Tier 2 and 3 vocabulary delivered over a year have on quality of exam responses (4-6 mark questions) for middle attaining girls in my KS4 classes?

By making this one aspect of their teaching the focus of their deliberate practice over the course of the year, teachers are much more likely to embed the approach and develop their teaching, than they are if they try to focus on too many things. With the latter approach, it becomes difficult to focus on so many things, the focus isn’t sustained and the impact is minimal.

This approach also gives teachers ownership over their CPD,  as they have selected the inquiry question themselves.  This brings with it a greater personal investment in sustaining the focus on improving that aspect of their teaching, as it’s something they have chosen to focus on.  This can also make lesson observations more focused and useful.  Rather than just being generic, observations can have a single foci, framed around the inquiry question, which the teacher can direct e.g. ‘when observing the lesson, can you look at how well I follow up student responses to questions with a more challenging question to promote thinking?’  This can provide really useful feedback for the teacher.  Some curriculum areas have come to a joint decision and all have a similar theme to their inquiry question e.g. the maths team, might all choose to focus on metacognition, as it’s a priority for that team.  One of the advantages of this approach, is that it allows teachers to discuss specific pedagogical approaches, within the context of their subject.

From a whole school perspective, there are clear benefits.  Every teacher is focused on and getting better at, mobilising an aspect of evidence informed teaching.  The cumulative effect of this across the school is enormous and has the potential to have a significant impact on the learning of our students.

In order to ensure an alignment between whole school teaching and learning priorities and the inquiry questions, teachers are asked to frame their inquiry questions around one of these evidence informed themes:

  • Metacognition
  • Memory
  • Formative Assessment
  • Disciplinary Literacy
  • Cognitive Load Theory

As this is now the third year of us taking this approach, a number of teachers are sticking with the inquiry question they had last year. This is fine – real and embedded change takes time, so it might be entirely sensible to continue to focus on the same aspect of teaching.

The diagram above describes how our school CPD programme supports this approach.  Once teachers have finalised their inquiry question, there will be three points during the year, when they will meet with other teachers who are focusing on the same theme – in a ‘Teacher Inquiry Group’.  So for example, any teacher whose inquiry question is based on disciplinary literacy will meet up and discuss this theme.  Each ‘Teacher Inquiry Group’ is facilitated by a member of the Research School Team.  During these meetings teachers will:

  • Explore some of the research evidence on this theme, by reading and discussing a paper on it.
  • Pick out the key ideas from this paper.
  • Share and discuss approaches they have tried – including what seemed to work and what didn’t.
  • Commit to trying out a new approach based on the research evidence and discussions they have had.

This also gives teachers the opportunity to hear about the  approaches that are being adopted in other curriculum areas.  This compliments our ‘Subject Planning & Development Sessions’, where curriculum teams meet every fortnight to discuss ‘what are we teaching over the next fortnight and how do we teach it well?’  This gives a good blend to our CPD – fortnightly subject specific input, alongside termly cross-curricular sharing. Between the ‘Teacher Inquiry Group’ meetings, members of the Research School Team are available for one to one coaching, to help sustain the work.

The ‘inquiry question’ approach to CPD ticks many of the boxes that the research evidence around effective CPD points us towards:

  • Targeted – individual teachers identify a specific aspect of their teaching that they want to develop.
  • Sustained – time is given over the year for teachers to reflect, discuss and share how this is going.  Furthermore, they stay with one specific area to develop over the year.
  • Collaborative – there are opportunities to discuss and share ideas with peers.
  • Evidence Informed – the inquiry questions are all framed around evidence informed approaches.
  • Blended – there is a blended approach to the CPD e.g. Input from the Research School team at the Teacher Inquiry Group meetings on a piece of research evidence, is then supported by ongoing and personalised coaching.

A commitment to continuing to improve as a teacher, is an integral part of the culture at Durrington High School.  The ‘inquiry question’ approach is a key part of this.

Shaun Allison

Shaun Allison is Director of the Durrington Research School and Head of School Improvement for DMAT.  He is co-leading two training programmes this year – ‘Curriculum, Teaching & Assessment‘ and ‘Leading Learning‘. 


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Fiefdom without a kingdom

Fiefdom: a territory or sphere of operation controlled by a particular person or group.

If you were to type the word fiefdom into Google you would be given the definition above, but also the example sentence– “a mafia boss who has turned the town into his private fiefdom”. Now I am not saying that teachers should start likening themselves to mafia bosses, however much of what we do relies on us creating our own fiefdoms within the school environment. The size of these fiefdoms depend on the individual, for a head this fiefdom is the entire school, for a curriculum leader it is their department area and for teachers it is their classroom. The best teams and teachers are able to create and maintain strong fiefdoms. This is done through the language they use in classes, the routines they establish, the standards they set, the expectations they have and the presence they have within their own fiefdom.

However, with many secondary schools having moved to a system of bubbles and zones, with teachers moving between classrooms and areas, the natural confines of a classroom or department area that delineate our fiefdoms have disappeared over night. For some staff, who are used to having their own room, this is a source of great anxiety. Even for staff used to roaming (those that do not have their own room for example members of leadership) this new way of working is posing new challenges to establishing their presence and ownership of the classroom.

For the foreseeable future things are going to be very different, for one thing we will be the outsider coming in. Students are remaining in their room and we are, most likely, entering after them, as a result the most primitive way of establishing fiefdom by meeting and greeting students at the door is gone. No longer are we able to have everything ready to go before the students enter, for they are already there – it is understandable to feel pushed onto the back foot. Established routines for setting the tone of the lesson is going to be very different, your ability to be a presence in your area between lessons will be gone (as you move from room to room), the known certainties of a respected colleague/subject leader in the room next door if you need to remove any student will be gone.

All of a sudden, our fiefdoms are looking very fragile and susceptible to attack.

So, what can we do to establish fiefdom without a designated kingdom?

Below is by no means an exhaustive list nor does it guarantee success, it is simply a summary of ideas that I have been bouncing around with our curriculum leaders and their teams.

  • Change Language – while you may not be able to refer to the room as “your classroom” any more, we can still refer to the lesson as “your lesson”. Clearly setting out your expectations and routines at the start of the year (and repeating this if necessary) in the context of this is what will happen in “your lessons” will help create a sense of ownership.
  • Where possible (i.e. after breaks) be in your bubble zone to meet students (at an appropriate distance of course) as they return to the room.
  • Use the end of lesson to establish how the start of the next lesson will work, for example asking students to write some retrieval questions down that they will answer at the start of the next lesson while you get thing set up and sorted.
  • Clearly verbalise your expectations on starting work and finishing work – i.e. in silence, clear date and title, handing books back into the box in set order of your choice. While these small details of organisation may not fully replace the impact of meeting and greeting students and dismissing them from the room in an organised manner it will go some way to establishing routines, structure and expectations.
  • Display confidence on entering the room, look to get students working as quickly as possible (see point earlier about using the end of the previous lesson). Perhaps consider altering your starting routines or task type so that it is more teacher led – i.e. through questioning, a retrieval quiz, teacher led discussion so that focus is quickly on you and you take the lead.
  • Consider how you can minimise the need for PowerPoint and other electronic displays – the quickest way to get a lesson started may be a white board and pen! This also enables a much more direct teaching approach which may be necessary in these times but is also proven to be highly effective.
  • One of the nuanced aspects of having a separate classroom for each lesson, is that the actual change of location might help some students switch on to the work of that subject. Using lesson starters or your first bit of teacher talk to get students thinking back to their last lesson in your subject may help them switch on to your subject and bring past learning to mind.
  • Ensure you have and know the system/locations for removing students to other rooms within the bubble if they are not meeting expectations. Confidently knowing where they can go will again help establish your position.
  • Detentions also create a problem – to prevent bubbles mixing it is likely that most schools will runs sanctions by year group. Having subject specific detention work that you can set and the students can do independently in the detention will allow you to maintain some ownership over the sanction, even if it not run by you or your department lead.
  • Liaise with department leads and form tutors to pass on praise and concerns which can be followed up with students. This will show that you are still part of a wider team despite being fragmented.
  • Similarly ensure that contact home is made to praise students but also report poor behaviour.

By Ben Crockett (@BenCrockett1)

Ben is an Associate Senior leader at Durrington High School.  He is also a Research School Associate for Durrington Research School and will be delivering our training on “Effective Use of the Pupil Premium Fund” with Marc Rowland.

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Recovery teaching – best bets

Our whole school INSET was more focused on operational matters than it has been for some years. As a teaching and learning team we are lucky at Durrington that we are generally given top billing for any INSET time, and I’ve got used to our hour or 90 minute slot on the first day. Understandably, this time was cut down substantially this year as we needed to help our staff understand staggered timings, hand washing and bubbles.

As a result we needed to make sure the messages we gave were as pared down and precise as possible, while still rooted in the best available evidence. Ultimately, despite all the operational messages, our core business remains what happens once our students are in the classroom and ready to learn.

What is clear is that it cannot just be business as usual this year. Lockdown has presented a number of specific challenges that our teaching needs to overcome. That is not to say we need to teach completely differently, but our emphasis needs to change. Areas of teaching have become more or less important due to students being away from us for 6 or 7 months. I tried to exemplify what I saw as the greatest challenge for our teachers with the following image:

Now, the complexity of having 25 to 30 different brains in the room that you are trying to engage with has always been one of the toughest challenges for teachers. However, the relative differences between them have never been starker. They may come in and sit down and look like a homogeneous class, but the differing experiences of those students during lockdown mean they are not equally equipped for your lesson despite what they might have in their pencil cases. You have the high attaining student who did every scrap of work asked of them and actually developed as a metacognitive and self-regulating learner during the summer months and is now ready to hit the ground running. You also have students, potentially disadvantaged students, who did no structured learning for the entirety of lockdown. And you have every variation in-between.

So what do we do about that?

The answer is the best we possibly can using the best bets provided by research evidence.

There is, as always, no one answer, no silver bullet, and we have produced a lengthy recovery teaching document giving teachers advice across a variety of aspects of teaching to help them with what to focus on this year. However on INSET we chose to focus on two key areas of teaching in the limited time we had. These were:

  1. Explanation
  2. Formative assessment

As a team we considered at length about what would be most useful to focus on, but ultimately we felt it was these two features of teaching that we wanted staff to zone in on as they thought about returning to the classroom.

I described them as the input and the output. Explanation is all about how we manage the input students receive whereas formative assessment is how we judge the output they give to assess the relative success of that input in causing learning.

The key messages around explanation were:

  • We cannot circulate the class speaking to groups or individuals as we normally would, so teaching from the front is going to be everyone’s default setting. However, do not worry about this, direct instruction has been proven by Professor Kirschner and others to be the best way for experts to help novices learn. Direct instruction is founded in explanation so let’s get ours right.
  • We learn in the context of what we already know, so prior knowledge is key to learning. The schemata (connected webs of information on a given topic stored in our long-term memories) of our students connected to what we are trying to teach them have in some cases been well maintained during lockdown and in other cases badly eroded. In order to overcome this we need to work the activate as much prior knowledge as possible before teaching new material. We can do this using strategies including:
    • Mindmaps (done from memory)
    • Questioning
    • Quizzes
    • Short teacher recaps (preferably using stories)
  • We need to consider cognitive load theory when planning our explanations. The germane load (the connection between the new material and what we already know) which we rely on to support our explanation in usual circumstances will not be present for many students so we need to work on reducing the extraneous load (distractions from the learning) as far as possible. We can do this through:
    • Chunking our explanations of complex ideas or procedures.
    • Using worked examples to support complex tasks.
    • Funneling attention towards our explanation.
    • Reducing redundant information from our explanations.
    • Limiting distractions.

The key messages around formative assessment were:

  • Consider the purpose of any assessment before planning it or enacting it. Formative assessment has the purpose of informing classroom decisions.
  • Consider the cost of the assessment before performing it. The costs will be the planning, the time taken to complete it and the time taken to mark it.
  • Consider whether the assessment will give you information you do not already have. If it won’t, don’t do it.
  • Ensure you do something with the results, if you don’t the assessment won’t be formative.
  • Let student “rustiness” wear off for a couple of weeks before starting up assessment.
  • Consider the following types of formative assessment for recovery teaching:
    • Diagnostic questions (designed to reveal what students do or do not know).
    • Multiple choice questions.
    • Low stakes quizzing.
    • Mini-whiteboards (these have been provided for students as part of their “packs”).

Having completed this section of the INSET, I was all too aware of how much information was being delivered that day and how much change was having to be absorbed. However, a consoling thought is how it is ultimately teaching that amongst so many questions can help provide some solid answers. There is a lot we cannot control at the moment, this part, we can.

Chris Runeckles is an assistant headteacher at Durrington High School.  He is also an assistant director of Durrington Research School and will be delivering our training on Metacognition and Memory

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