Good Teachers Talk: Better Teachers Listen


Working in an educational context with the worthwhile aim of reducing gaps between students from differing social backgrounds is a daunting task. Classrooms are inevitably sites of power asymmetry, and not just between the pupils. Although it can be awkward to confront, the social disparity between teachers and pupils is sometimes a tangible and influential factor in schools that needs sensitive, yet robust, handling.


Gee describes Discourses (with a capital ‘D’) as ‘social practices’ that involve ‘words, actions, values and beliefs’ that members of particular social groups adopt in order to assert their roles and therefore identities. According to Gee, we are apprenticed into our primary discourses early in life through scaffolded support from people who have already mastered the discourse, usually our families. We are also apprenticed into a secondary discourse as part of our socialisation outside of our early homes and peer groups through social institutions, such as schools.

So what does this have to do with the gaps in our classrooms?

It all comes down to the concept of privilege.  Gee explains that certain discourses are privileged over others because they are the systems used to confer control of social goods such as money or cultural authority, and thus bestow the members of that discourse with greater power and elevated status in society. Significantly, schools (and academia as a whole) privilege a particular secondary discourse in the same way, and this is often incorporated into the primary discourse of particular children, traditionally from middle-class homes. As a consequence, these pupils encounter less conflict with the dominant discourse at school compared to pupils from homes where this secondary discourse is not integrated into the primary discourse. Gee argues that classrooms where this disparity is not recognised will ‘simply privilege those students who have begun the acquisition process at home, engaging those students in a teaching/learning process while the others simply fail.’

What Can Teachers Do?

Gee’s theories about the social influence of discourse seem to point to the notion that it is not just the pupils’ use of language that is critical for success, but also that of the teacher. Accordingly, below are four suggestions for practice outlining how teachers can try to overcome the potential discourse disparities in their classrooms. These are by no means absolute, and are perhaps better understood as gateways opening some exploratory paths into this complex social maze.

1. Don’t ‘dumb down’.

Explicit vocabulary instruction and not shying away from more sophisticated, conceptual language is key to overcoming this inequality. Methods for explicit vocabulary instruction are explored by Andy Tharby here and John Tomsett here.

2. Model the rules of the discourse.

Explicit modelling of the discourse in its own right is fundamental, and this must come from the teacher. Pupils need to experience the social practice they are aiming to achieve as modelled by a master – especially those students who are acquiring this as a new secondary discourse. For example, before pairing students together to discuss a set problem or question, the teacher can demonstrate the type of talk and interaction expected through pairing up with a willing student or other adult and acting out the discussion in front of the class. During the discussion, it is essential that the teacher explicitly points out the conventions (words and behaviour) that are in play, such as turn-taking or giving justification for a response.  Neil Mercer’s ground rules for exploratory talk provide excellent criteria for identifying the conventions required for successful classroom discourse.

3. Work on a spectrum between speaker and listener.

One of the main tensions at the heart of this practice is that in inducting all pupils into an arbitrarily privileged secondary discourse the teacher is supporting a hierarchy in which some voices are silenced. This clearly has wide political ramifications, the scope of which warrants extensive further consideration. However, one way in which teachers can begin to tackle this conflict is to consciously alternate their role from teacher-as-talker to teacher-as-listener. This entails sometimes handing over the expectation of talking to the pupils (after the modelling described in Suggestion 2 above), and stepping back from being a constant authoritative expert. One way of achieving this identify shift is to come unprepared to a lesson! For example, working on a poem in English that neither the pupils nor the teacher have read before. In doing so, pupils begin to see that their identities can fluctuate from learner to contributor, thus giving them the confidence to enact this discourse themselves in the classroom and beyond.

 4. Make it meta.

The EEF toolkit signposts metacognition as having a significant positive impact on pupils’ learning, especially those from more disadvantaged backgrounds. Similarly, in order to empower all pupils to confidently access privileged discourses and to be aware of their status as users of this discourse, teachers need to support pupils’ thinking about how they are engaging with the conventions. One method of achieving this is to use Mercer’s ground rules for exploratory talk as a success criteria. This involves explicit modelling of the ground rules in the first instance, followed by frequent referral to the rules in order for students to reflect on their learning experiences and set targets. This metacognitive process can help pupils to explore beyond what they have learned,  to how they achieved this new understanding.

Further Reading 

Alexander, R, Towards Dialogic Teaching: Rethinking Classroom Talk, 2008.

Gee, J. P, The Social Mind: Language, Ideology and Social Practice, 1992.

Sutherland, J, Developing Exploratory Talk and Thinking in Secondary English Lessons: Theoretical and Pedagogical Implications, 2010.

Posted by Fran Haynes

Posted in General Teaching | 1 Comment

Using You Tube to support learning

This week’s teaching forum was led by our geography Curriculum Leader, Ben Crockett.  Ben was getting frustrated with the lack of commercially produced revision resources available for his students, particularly ones that would support them with remembering the case studies.  He wanted to be able to provide high level instruction for his students beyond the classroom, that went beyond the bog standard BBC Bitesize videos and was of the same high standard that students have come to expect from their geography teachers.

To address this, he created a departmental ‘YouTube’ channel.  Ben and his team then created short videos of themselves creating and explaining case study diagrams, and started publishing them on the channel.  The videos also contain exam questions and model answers, narrated by a subject expert (their teacher).  During the videos, the teachers support metacognition by explaining their own thought process in the creation of the case study diagram and how this knowledge can be applied.  Here is an example of a video:

The channel is here.

These case study videos link into the ideas of providing visual cues to aid explanation and dual coding (using text and images to support learning).  By being able to have multiple exposure to these explanations at home (or wherever they like) and then practising drawing them over and over (and being able to self-mark their versions, by comparing them to the video version), they become fluent at doing it.  They also ensure consistency in terms of quality explanations across the teaching team.

It’s worth stressing that this is not flipped learning.  These videos are not used to explicitly teach complex ideas – that happens in lessons (as it should).  The videos are there to support what has happened in lessons, at home.

They have also supported parental involvement in learning.  Parents have given the geography team very positive feedback about the videos.  They like being able to watch the videos with their children and then asking them questions about the content – which of course, supports retrieval practice.  Most parents want to be able to support their children with their learning – but they don’t know how.  This provides them with an opportunity to do just that.

Is it working?  Views on the channel have been very high – 17,770 to date.  This suggests a high level of use by students, parents and other visitors.  Attainment in GCSE geography this year was very strong (84% A*C & 44% A*A – both 20% above national average).  When this is broken down further, students achieved very high marks on the specific GCSE exam questions that relate to the case study questions – when compared to national averages and ‘similar centres’.

In terms of next steps, the geography team want to further develop the You tube channel, so that is has a wider range of video resources, focusing on exam question response formulation and deconstruction.  Alongside this, videos will also be developed that focus on core geographic skills and statistical analysis.

Advice for teachers looking to something similar

It doesn’t have to be complex.  A simple stand (or clamp stand borrowed from the science department) and flip cam/iPhone will do the job.  Editing can be done using a simple tool such as ‘moviemaker’. The focus should be on the quality of the narration/instruction – you have to imagine that you are teaching the content to the students, but whereas in lessons you can question and review points, make mistakes and correct them, the videos are didactic.  With this in mind it is important that you phrase things carefully or model how to take a basic point and develop it into a higher level explanation.  This last point is vital – the videos are only a cue to memory.  The basic case study drawings only provide cues from which students need to develop and expand answers.

Posted by Shaun Allison

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In ‘Bringing Words to Life’, Beck, McKeown & Kucan talk about three tiers of words that students will be exposed to during school:

Most students come to school with a good tier 1 vocabulary.  Those students who come from a ‘word-rich’ family, where they have been encouraged to read and have discussions about the world around them, will have a good tier 2 vocabulary.  At school, they will be exposed to a growing number of tier 3 words, from the subject specialists that teach them.  What about the students who come from a ‘word-poor’ background, where they haven’t been encouraged to read and so haven’t developed that more sophisticated tier 2 vocabulary?  The classroom will be a daunting place for them.

Here’s Dr Isabel Beck talking about tier 2 vocabulary:

Last week, Dr Brian Marsh and I visited some lessons around Durrington, across science, history and geography.  Within the short period of time that we were in lessons, students were exposed to an array of different tier 2 and 3 words. For example:

  • Absorption
  • Emission
  • Transfer
  • Temperature
  • Solution
  • Osmosis
  • Biome
  • Precipitation
  • Variation
  • Composition
  • Representation
  • Emblem
  • Dominant
  • Depiction
  • Masculinity

This was in less than an hour.  Multiply that up across 5 lessons a day, every day and it becomes clear what students are exposed to.  This is great to see – students being exposed to and encouraged to use challenging academic vocabulary.  We need to think about this though – those students who come from a ‘word-rich’ background will cope with this vocabulary well.  Those that don’t, will probably experience feelings of inadequacy and frustration, as their understanding of these words will be limited.  This will be a serious block to their learning.

Fortunately, we saw teachers using a number of strategies in lessons to help their students understand this new vocabulary:

  • Deliberate multiple exposure to the new words during the lesson – including chanting the word and definition repeatedly in a science lesson!
  • Asking students to explain the definition of these words, in their own words.
  • As well as explicitly teaching the definition of the new word, following this up by questioning students about the correct use of  the word in a sentence e.g. ‘So, Trinity, how would you use ‘biome’ in a sentence?’
  • Discussing words that have a different meaning, that students might think have the same meaning e.g. heat and temperature.
  • Encouraging students to use academic language in their response e.g. ‘Well done Sam, but instead of saying hot objects give off more infra-red radiation, what could you use instead of ‘give off’?’  Sam then thought about it and replied with ’emit’.
  • Discussing the derivation of words e.g. students had studied electrolysis before and knew that ‘lysis’ meant ‘breaking down’ so electrolysis effectively means using electcity to break down compounds.  This was linked to ‘plasmolysis’ during osmosis i.e. the shrinking and possible rupture of a cell.

Teaching vocabulary like this can often be overlooked, but is so important.  It’s empowering for students and grows cultural capital.  Put simply, it makes students feel clever.

Knowledge Organisers are a great way to support this, but more about that during our INSET day in November.

Further Reading

Posted by Shaun Allison

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More questions = fewer pointless PowerPoints

The focus of this week’s Teaching Forum is questioning, an essential element of the craft of teaching. I sat down with Alex Mohammed, assistant leader in science, to learn a bit more about how to do it successfully.


For Alex, questioning is the most crucial part of being a science teacher. It enables him to understand where his pupils are so that he can extend them even further. Alex has spent the last four years honing and improving two types of question: those he asks while he is modelling and explaining a concept, and those he asks to check understanding.

Let’s start with the modelling. Unlike many teachers, Alex usually introduces new concepts from a blank screen – he rarely relies on pre-designed slide-shows. While he models and explains these concepts with simple drawings and diagrams, he repeatedly questions the class, helping them to link and extend their knowledge.

Alex gave me an example from a recent lesson on the structure of a leaf. He was teaching the class about the waxy cuticle, the protecting film that covers the epidermis of leaves. Alex wanted the class to understand the function of the waxy cuticle and the role it plays in the overall structure of the leaf. Alex’s question sequence went like this:

Alex: What might the waxy cuticle stop which the leaf might want to keep in?

Student: Water.

Alex: How would the water be leaving the leaf?

Student: Through evaporation.

Alex: Why is water important to the leaf?

Student: Because plants need water for photosynthesis.

Alex: What is photosynthesis for?

Student: To make glucose.

Alex: What is glucose needed for?

Student: To make proteins and cellulose.

Alex: Why do plants need these?

Student: To ensure healthy growth and development.

The advantages of this approach are manifold. Firstly, it allows for useful retrieval practice – the regular linking-back gives students the chance to practise the knowledge and concepts they have studied before (in this case, photosynthesis and glucose). It also means that new learning is always connected to what is already known. This encourages the building of rich, interconnected schemas of knowledge, something that is very hard to do with isolated facts.

The overall goal of Alex’s questioning technique is to help the students to internalise the questioning process. Over time, he finds that many of his students become ‘self-prompting’. He sees this when a student extends an answer independently without needing a prompt. This dialogic approach also helps to prepare students for good scientific writing – in particular, exam questions that require greater elaboration. Alex suggests that it takes a few weeks, even a whole term, to create this culture, but once students start to see the benefits to their written work and their progress they tend to buy into it wholeheartedly.

Alex also uses hinge questions in almost every lesson. He uses these to identify when and why students are stuck. Sometimes these questions are designed to check understanding; at other times, they are about deepening understanding. Recently, Alex was teaching a group about decay. He asked:

What features are going to cause decay to be at its optimum? Think particularly about the enzymes that are being used.

This was a think-pair-share question. As the groups discussed, Alex nipped around and listened in. He was checking for the right answer – the higher the temperature, the better the enzymes work (until you get past 40 degrees when they start to denature). Alex then intervened with the individuals who were struggling or had developed misconceptions.

Perhaps one of the most interesting things to come out of our discussion was Alex’s description of how he had developed these questioning skills. In his first year of teaching, he had relied too much on PowerPoint slides. The lessons had felt inauthentic and there had been little interaction with the students. To combat this, his mentor told him to ‘just use a pen’ and insisted that he taught for a whole day without a PowerPoint. This was the making of Alex as a teacher – it changed the way he taught for good.


What struck me most about my discussion with was Alex was the careful and deliberate way that he helps his groups to build their subject knowledge and, in turn, their confidence. It seems to me that Alex’s two questioning techniques combine in helping his students to construct strong and interconnected mental models of the subject.

It is no wonder that so many develop such a love of science.

Andy Tharby


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Three Tricks to Improve Explanations

How do we help our students to make insightful use of academic content? How can we support students in confidently accessing more abstract ideas and applying these to their understanding? How can we ensure that students are able to engage with concepts that challenge them beyond the pragmatic foundations and into the loftier realms of theoretical evaluation?  In this week’s teaching and learning forum, Andy Tharby explores how we can support students in achieving these ideals with three tricks for improving explanations.

  1. Make use of what your students already know.

By activating their prior knowledge, you will be helping students to make explicit the scaffolding that they already have in place (but check for misconceptions – see trick 2 below). Students can then use this framework to attach and organise more conceptual ideas and principles, and to build their theoretical structures. There are multiple methods for making links to students’ prior knowledge, for example explicit teaching of key vocabulary before exploring new concepts.

As well as making obvious links to what students already know, using metaphor and analogy is also an effective way of activating prior knowledge. For examplewebmedia, when teaching Blake’s challenging and highly equivocal image of ‘mind-forg’d manacles’, English teacher Tod Brennan uses the analogy of your inner police officer to help his students grasp the sophisticated notion of socially inflicted inhibitions that have been absorbed by the self. The shape of the curriculum is also a crucial part of this explanatory process – does the structure allow for concepts to lead naturally from one to the other, so that there are solid hooks from which students can attach new ideas?

  1. Make your explanation persuasive.

Explanation is persuasion in more ways than one. Firstly, in order for explanations to work students have to trust that what you are saying is true, and that you are a credible source. This is all part of the essential relationship building between teacher and student, and for it to be successful you need secure subject knowledge and more than one convincing example in your armoury.

Another crucial part of your persuasive explanation is to tackle misconceptions head on, as these are very difficult to eradicate once they are part of a student’s knowledge. Annette Taylor explores the pedagogical technique of refutational teaching, which occurs in several stages. The first stage involves devising ways of testing the possible misconceptions that students already hold true – this is where secure subject knowledge is key. In the second stage the students learn the accurate facts before the teacher openly addresses the misconception. Next, the refutation: The teacher tells the students “why wrong is wrong” without dwelling on the misconception for too long and risk making it more familiar than the accurate facts. Instead, students fill the void created by the refutation through repetition of “what is right”. In the final stage, the student is inoculated through discussion of incorrect ideas they may encounter as a result of the misconception.

How might this look in practice?

A common misconception in English is the belief that every adverb ends in ‘-ly’. In the refutational model, we would begin tackling this misconception through stating that adverbs modify adjectives and verbs. We may then give examples of adverbs that end in ‘-ly’, for example unfortunately, as well as adverbs that do not, for example rather. Next, we would explain that “some people believe that all adverbs end in ‘–ly’ but this is wrong” before swiftly moving on to give more examples of adverbs with non’-ly’ endings. In the final inoculation stage, we might pose the question ‘Why might someone incorrectly believe that very is not an adverb?’

  1. Provide time for self-explanation

Often, asking students to explain ideas independently occurs too early in the learning experience. The result is poor quality and superficial understanding. A more productive model would involve teachers firstly delivering input about the new concepts with multiple examples. Students then use structured talk to explain the ideas in their own words, thus allowing them time for self-explanation and the opportunity to apply the new ideas to their existing concrete knowledge. For example, in a recent English lesson in which students were exploring the character Inspector Goole from Priestley’s ‘An Inspector Calls’, Andy presented the class with four theories about who Inspector Goole could be before pairing students up to explain the ideas to each other, followed by independent writing.

In summary, the key to successful explanation of more abstract ideas lies in finding concrete examples to support the tricky parts of learning. An easy way for all teachers to find such examples is to read widely around your subject area and borrow the explanations offered by others, thereby enriching your students’ understanding as well as your own.

Further Reading

Why Don’t Students Like School, Daniel T Willingham, Chapter 4.

What happens when we teach literary interpretations as facts by Andy Tharby

Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions From Cognitive and Educational Psychology

Posted by Fran Haynes

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Teaching brilliance through benchmarks

This week’s teaching forum shines a light on how the art and design department at Durrington have used the brilliance of past GCSE students to inform the teaching and learning of their current cohorts.  In simple terms it is about taking the very best examples, displaying them beautifully and then using them to direct students towards similarly excellent work.

Best of Best DHS (1)

Director of art and design Gail Christie started out with a vision to create a mini-art college feel within the department.  This included exhibition style displays of the very best student work, regularly changed and organised in a thematic way.  Over the last 10 years this has developed to become a central part of the department’s approach to teaching.

The area is now zoned according to the different elements students need to produce at GCSE.  At the start of each unit of work, art and design teachers take their students out of the classroom and into the central atrium area where the work is displayed.  Through explanation and careful questioning students are then taken through the process of how the students achieved the brilliant drawings, painting and sculptures that are being discussed.  The focus is on unpicking each element in fine detail, allowing students to see the building blocks required to produce the highest possible quality.

There are multiple benefits to this approach.  Firstly there is the high expectations it creates.  Students are immersed in excellence as soon as they enter the department and so cannot help but recognise where the bar is set.  Secondly the mystery of how the often abstract goals set at the start of a topic can be reached is removed.  Students can see clearly both the end point and the steps to get there.  Lastly teachers can refine their own practice by constantly building on the success of previous students, little is forgotten through this approach allowing tweaks and improvements to be made.

The success of this approach can be measured through the incredible outcomes the department has, achieving 100% A*-C year on year.  Clearly the subject lends itself to this way of working, but no doubt other subjects can learn from this approach to using benchmarks to benefit not just the creators but also those that follow them.

Posted by Chris Runeckles


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What will the Durrington Research School do for you?

We are incredibly excited to have been designated as a Research School this year, as a part of the Research Schools Network.  We will share what we know about putting research into practice and will support local primary and secondary schools and colleges in making better use of the huge quantity of research evidence available – in a pragmatic and sustainable way.  So, who are we and what will we do?

The Durrington Research School Team

What are we going to do to support schools?

  • Post regular news and updates about our work and articles about evidence-informed teaching  on our website.
  • Keep followers up to date through our twitter account.
  • A monthly ‘Research Network Bulletin’ which will be emailed to network schools.  Sign up for this here.
  • Host two conferences to be held at Durrington High School:
    • ResearchEd – Saturday 28th April.
    • Research Meet – Tuesday 13th June (based on the ‘TeachMeet’ model, but based on evidence-informed teaching).
  • Host half-termly network meetings for network school research leads and T&L/CPD leaders to:
    • share information about Research School and other locality training and events;
    • share effective practice in terms of leading on teaching and learning/CPD/research;
    • plan the future direction of the Research School network.

(Meetings will be held on 9 Oct, 4 Dec, 18 Jan, 15 Mar, 17 May, 26 June.)

  • Offer an email helpline that will support network schools in finding the most useful evidence –
  • Host twilight workshops led by local teachers and leaders. These will focus on how local schools are using research evidence to improve teaching and student outcomes.

  • We will offer a range of training programmes for our network of schools.  Each three day training programme will be focused on key issues that are relevant to  schools within our network and will have the following structure:

  •   The three training programmes for 2017-18 are outlined below:
  1. Using the EEF Toolkit to address disadvantage in coastal areas
  • What are the issues faced by coastal schools that result in low aspiration and underachievement? What evidence does the EEF toolkit provide to support schools with addressing these issues? How can schools mobilise this evidence to improve the effectiveness of teaching and intervention for underachieving students?

Further details and booking here.

2. Improving memory for success in terminal GCSE courses

  • Which teaching methods have been shown to improve memory recall? How can better course and curriculum planning improve the depth and scope of student knowledge? What are the most effective revision strategies to teach our students?

Further details and booking here.

3. Evidence-informed principles that will improve teaching

  • What does the evidence say are the main features of great teaching? How can teachers use this evidence to improve their impact in the classroom? How can we mobilise this evidence into a cohesive teaching and learning/CPD strategy across a whole school?

Further details and booking here.

  • We will offer follow- up support for schools who attend these training programmes, through school visits.


  • As well as the programmes above, we will also offer schools a range of bespoke training opportunities – such as INSET days, staff training and one-to-one support work. Contact us to discuss your requirements and we will plan the programme with you.

  • We will support schools within our network to apply for Innovation Evaluation Grants.  Teachers within the network of schools can apply for one of these grants, with the support of our Research School, to develop innovative teaching and learning approaches they are implementing in their classroom or school.  We will support schools with their applications, through these Innovation Evaluation Grant Workshops.

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