Tight but loose

ofsted teaching

The above extract from the new OFSTED inspection handbook is a move in the right direction.  Rather than constraining teachers to a formulaic lesson structure, it is acknowledging that teaching is a creative and varied profession, where a ‘one size fits all’ approach is not helpful.  Instead it appears to be accepting that teachers and schools know best how to teach their students effectively and if it works, then it’s good.

This ‘tight but loose’ philosophy (as coined by Led Zeppelin when asked about their approach to producing music!), is absolutely right for teaching.  There are key principles that we know make for effective teaching – questioning, feedback, independence and challenge.  Teachers should then be able to translate these principles into their own teaching, in the way that best fits their teaching style and the students that they are teaching.  This is the sort of creativity and individuality that we should be promoting as a profession.  As Tom Sherrington (@headguruteacher) puts it – out of the plantation and into the rainforest of teaching.

big4 pic 2

So, it’s worth thinking deeply about the ‘tight’ principles – the big 4 –  so that they can then shape our classroom practice.


The Socratic method of questioning (used by Socrates to develop latent ideas in his students) was discussed at a 15 minute forum at the end of last term.  It states that questioning should:

  • Encourage students to think
  • Get students to formulate in words what they already know
  • Get students to question what they think they know
  • Extend their thought processes

So in terms of putting these principles into practice:

  • No opting out allowed – go back to the student later when others have had a go.
  • No hands up – this limits involvement to those who want to be involved.
  • No “yes”/”no” from the teacher – these responses do not develop a dialogue.
  • Ask others to comment on the responses of their peers.
  • Ask for elaboration with responses.
  • Give them time to formulate their own answers – don’t be afraid of the silence.
  • As a part of your planning, write your own questions based on what you want to do/ them to know/ to think about.
  • Explore a myriad of possible answers.
  • Prepare supplementary questions.
  • Think about how you will re-phrase questions, if the original question doesn’t get a response.
  • Be prepared to explore answers with students.
  • Open questions not closed questions.
  • Don’t respond with “excellent” if it is not excellent. Try to be positive, bit then develop the response by further questioning.

Some resources to develop questioning can be downloaded here.


Feedback can be oral or written – it can come from the teacher, peers or self.

Feedback should be:

  • Specific – focused on a particular piece of work.
  • Current – there is no point in giving feedback on work that was done two months ago.  The time for the student to act on it has passed.
  • Helpful – the feedback should give the student a clear indication of how to improve their work and develop their learning.
  • Concise – don’t confuse the student with a long, rambling piece of feedback.  It should be clear and to the point and easy for the student to act on.
  • Balanced – make sure there is a good balance of positive and developmental feedback e.g. I like the way you have……to improve you could……

Once you have given the feedback you also need to ensure that:

  • The student is given time and expected to respond to the feedback.
  • You acknowledge their response to the feedback.

The following diagram suggests how this can be put in place when it comes to marking:

close the gap markingThe following article is a good example of this being done effectively.


When thinking about independence, it is worth considering the following:

  • Independence is not about students working without the input and support of a teacher.  Anyone who has tried to teach themselves golf will understand that this is not possible.  If you try to learn golf independently, you will make mistakes and progress will soon plateaux.  These mistakes will get encoded and become embedded into your game.  Once this happens, they are very difficult to undo.  However, if you work with a professional golf coach, they will model and explain what makes for an effective swing.  They will then look at your swing and correct your mistakes.  At this point, you can then begin to practice independently, but with useful and timely feedback from your golf pro.  The same model should be applied to developing independence in students.
  • Students know how to learn.  They teach themselves how to skate, scoot, play the x-box and a whole list of other ‘skills’ very effectively.  They do this by having the skill modelled by their friends, practicing it themselves and then getting feedback from their friends.  What we as teachers have to do, is to provide the opportunities for them to develop the same independence in the classroom.  It is slightly more complex than this.  In terms of learning to skate, scoot or play the x-box they have an incentive to do well – recognition from their peers.  This is a challenge for school culture!

So, in terms of independence, this can only happen effectively with input from the teacher, but students do know how to learn in this way.  We just need to tap into it:

independent learning flowThe diagram to the left suggests how we should be developing independence.  Firstly teachers need to explain and then model the idea that is to be developed – the teacher input stage.  This may involved modelling a piece of writing, demonstrating a practical activity/skill etc. During this stage, the teacher will also question students on their understanding and give them feedback.

Following this stage, students need to be given the opportunity to practice what they have been taught e.g. answering questions, producing piece of written work or some other piece of work.  This stage needs to be thorough and provide challenge for the students.  It should make them think deeply about their learning.  Again, feedback is vital here – to help them become ‘unstuck’ but also to identify and address any misconceptions.  Like the golf analogy, once these ‘mistakes’ become embedded, they are difficult to undo.  This stage won’t always be ‘fun’ and/ or ‘enjoyable’ and will at times be frustrating for the student.  It is however, a vital stage in the learning process.  With ‘grit and determination’ (and high quality feedback from the teacher) they will grow in confidence with the work, and so develop greater independence i.e. less reliance on the teacher.

As this confidence grows, and with prompting by the teacher, they will be able to expand and develop their ideas – which will then probably need further explanation and modelling from the teacher.

Another point about developing independence.  Group work, when carefully planned, can of course be a perfectly valid and useful learning exercise.  But, don’t be fooled into thinking that this will automatically be the case.  Unfortunately the following is often true:

group work


Challenge is about having high expectations in terms of what all students can achieve – not just the more able.  It is less about specific ‘things’ that we do, but more a whole philosophy of teaching.  Some key points:

  • Know your students, what they can and can’t do and push them to get better and better.
  • Don’t tolerate ‘I can’t do it’ as an excuse.
  • Use exemplar work (of the highest level) to show students what is expected of them.
  • Know what you are teaching, inside out – the curriculum, the specification and the assessment criteria.  Use this to inform your teaching and make sure students know what is expected of them.
  • Allow a breadth to their learning and encourage a ‘love of learning’.  Provide opportunities for students to follow their own interests, in relation to the topics they are being taught.  Tom Sherrington (@headguruteacher) refers to this as ‘taking the lid off learning’.
  • Do not tolerate sloppy, sub-standard work.  Instill a work ethic that expects the ‘best from all’ – in terms of the quality of the work and the presentation.  If it is not up to scratch, expect it to be re-drafted.

This quote from Jackie Beere gives much food for thought:

beere hope

And finally, why it matters….

john jones

Further Reading

The following blogs all contain excellent articles about many of the topics discussed here.

@headguruteacher – http://headguruteacher.com/

@LearningSpy – http://www.learningspy.co.uk/

@HuntingEnglish – http://www.huntingenglish.com/

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