Waking up to Desirable Difficulties at Durrington

This year at Durrington we have made some major changes to how our students start their school day. Gone are the ‘tutor times’ of old and in their place every student now engages with ‘Period 1’ – a structured programme of learning with the aim of ensuring the best outcomes for all.

Up until last year, Durrington students would arrive at school and spend 20 minutes with their form tutor in the morning and a further 10 minutes with their form tutor after lunch. Since September, we have merged these sessions so that now all students have a 30-minute lesson with their tutor every morning instead. During these lessons, students engage in tasks that cover a range of teaching and learning foci that are central to our approach here at Durrington:

  • Developing students’ background knowledge.
  • Developing students’ cultural capital.
  • Increasing students’ range of tier 2 vocabulary.
  • Teaching students the most effective evidence-informed strategies for learning to use during revision.

We feel confident that bringing these underpinning principles of effective learning to the fore will benefit students across the whole curriculum and help them to succeed in all subject areas.

Accordingly, we have implemented a very structured weekly programme:

Content Aim
‘In the News’

Students watch a range of news clips from the week with their tutor and then work on specific evidence-informed vocabulary tasks to discuss the items viewed.


We want to develop students’ background knowledge and provide an opportunity for explicitly teaching tier 2 vocabulary in a range of contexts.
KS3 DEAR (Drop Everything and Read)

KS3 students have two ‘drop everything and read’ sessions per week. However, this is not a case of students simply bringing a book and reading in silence. Instead, one session is dedicated to reading aloud and the second session is spent reading a personal choice of book but with structured questioning.


We hope to continue developing the wider reading culture that is already a strong feature of school life at Durrington, but to also model evidence-informed reading strategies to ensure no student is left behind. There will be more about this in next week’s classteaching blog.
KS4 DEAR (Drop Everything and Revise)

KS4 students have two lessons per week learning about and practising evidence-informed strategies for revision and independent work away from the classroom.


We want to ensure that the time students are spending revising is as productive as possible. See below for more details on how we have endeavoured to make this the case for Year 10 and Year 11 this year.



Every student still attends a traditional assembly at least once a week.


It is important to us that students are aware of their place and role in the school and wider community, and assembly is a crucial site for this sense of belonging and responsibility to be fostered and maintained.


Friday Challenge

This is when students work as a team with their tutor to prepare for a whole-school memory challenge. For example, this half term all tutor groups have been memorising the countries of Africa. There will be a quiz at the end of term to test students and tutors to see who can remember the most.


This provides an opportunity for students to develop their cultural capital (challenges have been designed with this in mind) and practise essential learning skills such as retrieval practice. Additionally, we did not want to lose the vital pastoral care that is intrinsic to effective tutoring, so the Friday challenge provides a way for students to build relationships as a group and with their tutor that are vital to wellbeing in school.


Our programme with Year 10 and Year 11 students aligns with Bjork and Bjork’s desirable difficulties which you can read more about in Ben Crockett’s Durrington Research School blog this week. Bjork and Bjork identify three problems that learners face which mislead them into thinking they are learning effectively when in fact they are not:

  1. Subjective impressions: Bjork and Bjork state that we can often feel that we are learning when we are not because of what we are doing. The researchers provide the example that rereading a chapter a second time can provide a sense of familiarity and perceptual fluency that is interpreted as understanding but is in fact just low-level priming.
  2. Use of cues: Students can encounter information coming to mind readily and interpret this as learning when in fact it is a product of cues in the environment that will not be present at a later time.
  3. Challenge: Conditions that rapidly improve performance often fail to lead to long-term learning, or in other words retention and transfer of knowledge. Conversely, conditions that create challenge often optimise long-term retention and transfer but are a lot less popular because they are slow.

We are using P1 to try to support our KS4 students in overcoming these challenges. Crucial to this is the introduction of desirable difficulties, which Bjork and Bjork describe as conditions of learning that apparently create difficulty but actually lead to more durable and flexible learning. We have tried to create these ‘conditions’ in the ways set out below.

  1. We have varied the conditions of learning by requiring students to revise specific-subject material with their tutor, i.e. outside of the subject classroom and not just with their subject teacher. This has taken a lot of preparation and coordination by assistant headteacher Steph Temple so that tutors feel supported in dealing with content outside of their specialism but has, so far, proven totally achievable.
  2. We show students how to interleave rather than group topics. For example, most recently Year 11 have been working on the English Literature GCSE text ‘An Inspector Calls’. Using knowledge organisers, students have created banks of revision materials based in topics such as characterisation, themes, context etc. Crucially, the tutors have then modelled to students how to interleave these revision materials by mixing up their topical resources rather than revising in blocks of topics.
  3. The students have P1 DEAR for 30 minutes twice a week which allows for spacing rather than massing their study.
  4. Finally, the revision resources that students have been making and using are specifically flashcards with questions or instructions on one side and the answers on the reverse. This is so that students use self-testing rather than presentations as study events.

Bjork and Bjork emphasise that the desirable element of desirable difficulties is fundamental, and explain that desirable difficulties trigger encoding and retrieval processes to aid learning, comprehension and remembering. Essential to this is the fact that students must have the required background knowledge in place – asking them to revise content they do not already know would create undesirable challenges that would thwart learning . This is why the KS4 DEAR programme has been carefully designed so that students are only revising knowledge that has already been fully taught in subject lessons. For example, Year 11 students are currently covering topics they studied in Year 10.

So far the new P1 KS4 DEAR looks very promising, and, although it is too soon to evaluate the impact, we are hopeful that P1 will benefit students both in their school outcomes and beyond.

Next week we will take a closer look at the KS3 DEAR programme and how this is supporting literacy across subject areas.


Fran Haynes

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