Explanation Made Easy

As part of a series of blogs focused on Durrington’s six teaching principles, this piece deals with the underpinning principle of explanation.  It marries with James Crane’s blog on the Durrington Research School website.

According to the Collins English Dictionary ‘if you give an explanation of something, you give details about it or describe  it so that it can be understood’. Whist this definition of explanation is simple enough, the myriad of students that make up a teacher’s audience can make this fundamental principle of teaching much more complicated than it seems. Factors such as the students’ background knowledge, their depth and breadth of vocabulary as well as their belief in you as a credible source of information can all hugely influence the efficacy of any teacher’s explanation.

Fortunately, there are some clear, practical strategies that every classroom teacher can use to ensure that their explanations enlighten the way through the muddy waters of learning rather than leaving students all at sea.

The Durrington Research Blog this week summarises the findings from the Department of Education’s recent paper Cognitive Load Theory in Practice: Examples for the Classroom’. This paper provides seven teaching strategies that teachers can employ to help ensure that students’ working memories are neither dealing with too much cognitive load nor too little. When this balance in explanation is struck, students’ learning is optimised.

Strategy 1: Tailor lessons to students’ existing knowledge and skill.

A key element of effective explanation is to tether new knowledge to what is already known. Ways to do this in the classroom include making comparisons, using analogies and using concrete examples. A recent example from Durrington comes from an English teacher explaining the meaning of the word ‘imperceptibly’ to a Year 10 class. This is a tricky concept to elucidate that could result in a very convoluted and abstract discussion about the tangibility of observational matter. Instead, the teacher explained how fingernails are examples of something that grow imperceptibly, that is something that definitely happens over time but without you noticing until a later stage. The use of a concrete example, to which all students could relate, pinned this slippery idea to rock solid understanding.

Strategy 2: Use worked examples to teach students new content or skills.

Worked examples provide students with fully guided instruction by labelling every step of the process required to solve a problem or successfully complete a task. This strategy helps to free up students’ working memory and allows them to focus on the process. In turn, this means they are more likely to be able to solve a problem using the same process later on. An example from Durrington comes from a history lesson on the Cold War. The teacher wrote an exemplar paragraph step by step on the board, labelling each step as he went. The teacher then left this labelled example visible for the students on the board and presented a new (but similar style) question for them to complete.

Strategy 3: Gradually increase independent problem-solving as students become more proficient.

Fully-guided instruction is useful for teaching new material but can become less effective as students increase their proficiency. Eventually, students need to be pushed into their struggle zone (see last week’s blog on ‘challenge’) by practising independently. The process of removing explanation in the form of scaffolding is a finely-tuned one involving very accurate knowledge of how expert students have become with specific skills. One approach that we use at Durrington is the ‘I – we – you’ model. In the first step of this strategy, the teacher models how to successfully complete a task or solve a problem. This involves the teacher thinking aloud and thereby explaining the questions, decisions and checks that she is making as she works. There is no input from students at this stage – their job is to do as the teacher is doing: watching, listening and recording what happens. In the ‘we’ stage the teacher presents a new but similar task and this time questions the students very carefully on what she should do to complete this successfully. The questions will probably be about the procedure, for example ‘How do I start?’, ‘What do I need to remember to do at this point?’ etc. From this questioning, the teacher must judge where she needs to step in with direct guidance because there is a knowledge gap or misconception, or where it would be more beneficial for the students to think hard about the process for themselves. In the final ‘you’ stage, the students complete a new but similar task independently. The teacher can use this feedback to identify if any parts of the process need explaining and modelling again.

Strategy 4: Cut out inessential information.

On average, we can only hold around seven chunks of new information in our working memory. This means that teachers need to think very carefully about the details they are providing in an explanation of material to students and minimise anything that is not relevant. Ways of doing this include:

  • Thinking carefully about PowerPoint presentations and avoiding images or words that do not directly contribute to an understanding of the material.


  • Not presenting students with words on a PowerPoint and speaking to the class at the same time. A better strategy would be to allow the students to read independently, or read aloud with no visual presentation of words.


  • If students have been studying material for a long time, minimising resources that are based on knowledge they have already secured. This will free up students’ working memories so that they can focus on the next stage of learning.


Strategy 5: Present all the essential information together

A key aim of explanation is to avoid the split-attention effect. This is when students have to divide their attention between two or more sources of information that have been presented effectively but can only be understood in reference to each other. The English Department at Durrington have recently been developing resources with this strategy in mind. Year 11 students have been practising their extended transactional writing pieces with a particular focus on structuring their writing effectively. To support the explanation of how these pieces should be constructed, every student is provided with examples, with the labels integrated in the model (rather than on a separate resource or different page) to show how the structuring strategy works in the piece.

Strategy 6: Simplify complex information by presenting it orally and visually.

Our working memory has two separate ‘channels’ that can cope with visual information and auditory information. If information is spread across the auditory and visual channels at once, the cognitive load can be better managed by the student. Ways to enact this strategy include using images to support verbal descriptions (as long as the images are directly linked to the explanation) and summarising key ideas in a diagram. Our Geography department make excellent use of this strategy through their case study diagrams, which you can read about here.

Strategy 7: Encourage students to visualise concepts and procedures they have learned.

This is a strategy for when students have already been taught the necessary declarative or procedural knowledge and have a very secure and accurate understanding. The aim is for students to mentally visualise themselves carrying out a task or solving a problem. The process of visualising helps to make this knowledge automatic by storing it in the long-term memory. For example, imagine a teacher has spent considerable time taking students through the process of answering a 6 mark question in PE. The subject knowledge has been taught as well as the steps to answering this type of question, and this has been practised many times. With visualisation, the PE teacher may present the students with a new 6 mark question and ask them to imagine every step they would take to answer the question. This strategy can be an effective way of gradually removing guidance on the way to independence.

Posted by Fran Haynes.












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Everyday challenge

As part of a series of blogs focused on Durrington’s six teaching principles, this piece deals with the underpinning principle of challenge.  It marries with Andy Tharby’s blog on the Durrington Research School website.

A transformational moment for me when clarifying what every-day challenge meant, was attending a course in 2016 at which Professor Rob Coe was a keynote speaker.  He posed three questions to the delegates:

  1. How many minutes does an average student on an average day spend really thinking hard?  
  2. Do you really want your students to be ‘stuck’ in your lessons?
  3. If they knew the right answer but didn’t know why, how many students would care? 

Question two particularly resonated with me.  When I thought of my most challenging students could I honestly say I regularly planned for them to be stuck?  Or more often was I planning for them to be occupied?  In large part the strategies below are focused on how we can set our expectations high, up the challenge, and in consequence increase the time our students spend thinking hard about what they are doing, and where necessary, struggling (while still keeping our sanity and an ordered classroom). 

To add some underpinning theory to this, challenge is about pitching our students into the struggle zone as regularly as possible.  Learning is unlikely to happen in the comfort zone as they are not thinking hard enough about the material in order for it to be retained.  Equally once the challenge gets too high students enter the panic zone and will shut down to what we are trying to teach them.  This is in large part due to cognitive load, as when we overload students with information their limited working memory (in which almost all information is lost within after 30 seconds) will not contribute to the formation of long-term memories, which is the storehouse of concepts, vocabulary and procedures where we ultimately want our teaching to end up.


Therefore, if you are attempting to teach something that the students won’t generally have much prior knowledge on, for example the 1381 Peasants’ Revolt in history, you should factor this into your planning.  If you explain the events, while also projecting a complicated slide on the board that contains long text to read, questions and several images, students will have too much to cope with and will fail to retain the knowledge.  It would be better to complete your explanation, then unpick an image, before introducing text for them to read in silence and finally asking students to complete the written outcome you desire.   

Preparing for our students to get and stuck and having the strategies is unstick them is a long-term venture and can be best encapsulated by the principle of challenge.  Some key strategies that will help us achieve everyday challenge are:

1. Prioritise learning over performance

The reason plenaries at the end of lessons to prove to an observer that the students in the class have made progress was always a flawed measure, is that all they prove is surface learning, or performance, rather than deep learning.  Learning is mysterious, liminal and invisible. An individual lesson is the wrong unit of time over which to judge learning.  Therefore a challenging curriculum is key to challenging lessons.  It has to be Curriculum first.

2. Space it out and keep coming back

This principle also fits with one of the strategies for learning to come from cognitive science with the strongest research-evidence behind it, distributed or spaced practice.  This is the idea that if you space out your study of a principle over time you will learn it more effectively than if you learn it intensively in a short space of time.

3. Set single challenging objectives

If we are to exemplify high expectations, any objective we share with our students should set the expectation for all.  We certainly shouldn’t limit some in our class to only being about able to cope with certain aspects of the subject matter. 

4. Get them thinking hard

As Professor Coe’s first question suggests, we should plan to challenge our students as much through thought as through action.  We should plan for what we expect students to be thinking about throughout the lesson as much as what we want them to do.  As Daniel Willingham put it in his book Why Don’t Students Like School? memory is the residue of thought, therefore we need to get them thinking about the topic we are trying to communicate.  

5. Know thy subject

If we are to truly challenge our students then we need to have absolute confidence in our own base of knowledge.  Research demonstrates that a deficit in teacher subject knowledge can be a barrier to students achievement

6. Challenging vocabulary

A central tenet of teaching should be that we use the rich language of the subjects we teach.  We should avoid at all costs the temptation to dumb down our language for fear that using the proper terms will terrify our students.  However, if we are to successfully create a classroom rich in historical language, we need to explicitly teach this words.  

7. Set the benchmark early

Use those first few lessons with a class to set the bar of expectation high and handsome.  Show them what you believe students in your class are capable of and get them to produce something similar.  This is useful in a number of ways.  It is something you can return to throughout the year (perhaps the dark days of early January) to demonstrate what they can do when they really put their minds to it.  It also establishes where the bar is in your classroom nice and early.  We know students tend to meet the expectations we have of them so start as you mean to go on.   

8. Share excellence

Once excellence has been achieved and created, make sure it kept and shared.  It is important students understand the level you expect and that the level is achievable within the context of your classroom or department.  The aim should be to immerse them in this excellence through displays and teaching strategies. 

Reflective Questions 

  • Do you plan for students to regularly get stuck and struggle in your classroom? 
  • Do you have high expectations of all the students you teach?
  • Is your subject knowledge strong enough to stretch your students with confidence?
  • How do you ensure students retain what you teach in their long-term memories and retrieve this regularly?

Posted by Chris Runeckles

Extra reading

John Sweller, Cognitive load theory, learning difficulty, and instructional design, Learning and Instruction Volume 4, Issue 4, 1994

Soderstrom and Bjork, Learning Versus Performance, An Integrative Review, Perspectives on Psychological Science, 2015, Vol 10, P176-199

John Dunlosky, Strengthening the Student Toolbox: Study Strategies to Boost Learning, American Educator 2013

Willingham, Why Don’t Students Like School

Coe et al., What Makes Great Teaching?

Bringing Words to Life, Beck, McKeown and Kucan

Chip Heath and Dan Heath, Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Take Hold and Others Come Unstuck

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The Best of 2018

As 2018 draws to a close, as usual at Durrington we like to look back over the year and select some of the best blogs from the last 12 months.  As a profession, we are very lucky that so many colleagues are prepared to share their thoughts and practice through blogging.   So here we go – for each month, one from classteaching and one blog of the week.



‘Talking Positive’ by Chris Runeckles discusses how the very best teachers develop great relationships with their students through the language they use.

Bit of a cheat this one but ‘Teaching to the Top: A Challenge Collection’ by Jamie Thom is a really useful collection of blogs that look at how we can ensure challenge for all.


‘Classroom Change: How the EEF’s Implementation Guide Can Support Classroom Practice’ by Fran Haynes looks at how this useful publication can be used to improve classroom teaching.

‘Differentiation, Inclusion & Classroom Culture’ by Damian Benney is a great romp through so much that is important about effective teaching.


‘Mobilising the Evidence – Part 2’ is an account of our INSET day, where staff shared how they have been mobilising research evidence in their classrooms.

‘Metacognition Assisting Revision’ by Julie Watson is another great example of a teacher mobilising research evidence to support students, following an assessment.


‘Bright Spots: SPDS’ highlights everything that is great about CPD at Durrington – sharing effective practice from our fortnightly subject specific CPD meetings.

‘Evidence Informed Teaching: Here’s what you might be doing’ by Tom Sherrington explores what evidence informed teaching looks like in practice,


‘Improving Our Subject Knowledge’ looks at how the geography team at Durrington are keeping their own subject knowledge in good shape.

‘Practical approaches to bringing research-informed practice to the classroom, the department and the whole school’ is a brilliant post from Claire Hill & Rebecca Foster on their researchED Durrington talk.


‘Year 7 and the joy of learning new subjects’ by Andy Tharby discusses what we can be doing to enthuse students about our subject.

‘Goldilocks Teaching: Pitching it Just Right’ by Harry Fletcher-Wood is an example of why Harry has been one of the most consistently good bloggers over the years.


‘Pruning your practice: seven criteria for cutting away ineffective strategies‘ by Andy Tharby does exactly what it says on the tin!

‘Dual coding & working memory’ by Rufus William is a very good account of how Rufus has been grafting key findings from cognitive science on to his day to day practice.


No blogging…we were at the beach!


‘Knowledge Organisers: Tackling the Misconceptions’ by Fran Haynes unpicks some of the challenges and misconceptions about using knowledge organisers.

‘Applying Cognitive Load Theory part 1: Overview & the Worked Example Effect’ by Tom Needham is another great example of research mobilisation in the classroom.


‘Cracking Homework’ by Chris Runeckles takes a look at how we are trying to ensure homework is effective as it can be at Durrington.

‘What makes a top teacher?‘ by Paul Kirschner & Mirjam Neelen unpicks the anatomy of a great teacher.


‘Threshold Concepts for Teachers’ is a great example of all that is good about Twitter – good people sharing their ideas freely.

‘How to explain…schema’ by David Didau is David doing what he has been doing brilliantly for years…writing really useful and thought provoking blogs.


‘I, We, You – A Simple Approach to Modelling’ by Andy Tharby is an excellent account of a really effective teaching strategy that is being used to great effect by our English team.

‘Closed questions are often the most important questions’ by Louise Hutton looks at the importance of questioning in the classroom.

And finally, here’s a special Christmas treat from the Durrington Research School team12 great research papers/articles to keep you busy over the festive period.

Have a great Christmas and all the very best for 2019


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I, We, You – A Simple Approach To Modelling

By Andy Tharby

Modelling is the bit in the middle. It is the teaching stage that comes between the teacher’s explanation of a task or procedure and student practice. It is also the stage that is so often left out or not given enough attention by teachers. Modelling has a number of purposes: to lift the veil on hidden thinking; to demonstrate and break down step-by-step procedures; and to provide excellent examples for students to emulate.

Without careful modelling, many students are left feeling rudderless and all at sea. They have little conception of what the final product, the goal, should look like, and they do not understand the small steps they need to go through to achieve success. Inevitably, without models their thinking – and subsequent work – becomes patchy and filled with avoidable errors. Ultimately, modelling brings greater clarity.

What is less clear, however, is the best way to encourage and train teachers to become better at modelling. We know we should be modelling as often as we can – but when, and how?

We have tried a number of approaches at Durrington, but the one that has had the most traction with teachers and students has been the simple I-We-You approach:

  • I do it first.
  • We do it together.
  • You do it on your own.

It is a very simple apprenticeship model, in which the teacher passes over their expertise to the student in a series of staged, scaffolded steps. It also dovetails perfectly with what education research tells about effective teaching – see Rosenshine’s Priniciples of Instruction, for instance, or the research on the need to reduce cognitive load.

  • The I-stage involves the teacher demonstrating to the class how to perform a task or procedure. This might be writing a paragraph, solving an equation or serving a tennis ball. This could take the form of a ‘live-model’ – when the teacher uses a visualiser, the board or a physical demonstration to talk their students through a new procedure. A pre-written worked-example is another option – these are especially useful when they are labelled with the steps students should go through. Models should always be deconstructed in the first instance.
  • The We-stage involves joint construction. In this step, students encounter a second problem which has the same deep-structure as the first problem (that covered in the Istage) but with different surface features. For example, an equation that needs to be solved through the same procedure, or a paragraph about a slightly different topic that requires students to use the same strategy. In the We-stage, teachers and students collaborate on the building of a second example, usually through questioning and dialogue.
  • The Youstage involves independent practice. This means that the students work alone on a third, similar problem. This might be a partially completed problem or task – perhaps they are given sentence starters or some of the steps are already done for them. Another approach is to ensure that the original model or worked example remains visible to remind them of the steps they need to take. At this stage, the teacher might be quietly intervening with individual students who need extra support. The You-stage should not be considered to be analogous with exam-conditions; instead, it is about withdrawing, or fading, some level of support, rather than removing it altogether.

This has been a very simple overview of the I-We-You model. It is important to keep it a flexible and adaptable model of teaching – sometimes classes might need repeated ‘we’ modelling, sometimes you might need to stop the independent practice and go back to the starting blocks.

This form of modelling does come with its own pitfalls and can lead to misunderstandings among teachers. For instance:

  1. It’s important to remember that the goal of this kind of modelling is to introduce new procedures in a gradual, incremental way so that, eventually, students can apply them to new and novel scenarios. The You-stage, therefore, is the most important – and it needs to be repeated regularly. If this does not occur, then students will learn the examples – i.e. what the teacher  wrote – but will not know how to (or that they need to) use the procedure in new situations. The goal of modelling should always be that students learn to independently transfer the procedure to new contexts.

2. Removing scaffolding is part of the artistry of teaching. Remove too quickly and students will not be ready and will miss out vital steps. Remove too slowly and you might cause learned helplessness, which occurs when students become too reliant on the scaffold and struggle to work independently.

3. Lack of reflection. It’s important to think through and talk through the effectiveness of the strategy with the group. Useful questions include: What worked well? What did you find hard? How would you approach it differently next time?

4. Modelling is no substitute for knowledge. This is especially the case when modelling writing. Students always need a handle on the subject they are writing about before attempting more difficult writing tasks.

We have found the I-We-You approach to be a useful way into modelling with many teachers. We urge you to try it out for yourself.

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Explanation – researchED Kent 2018

On Saturday Andy Tharby was at researchED Kent. Andy was talking about his new book ‘How to explain absolutely anything to absolutely anyone: The art and science of teacher explanation’.

Here are the slides from his talk:

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What does an evidence informed school look like? researchED Kent 2018

This Saturday I talked at researchED Kent about what I thought the ‘active ingredients’ of an evidence informed school might be.  Over the last few years we have been working at Durrington to become more evidence-informed.  Furthermore as a research school, we have been fortunate enough to work with many other schools who are trying to do the same.  Based on this, here are my thoughts about what a checklist for an evidence informed school might look like:

  • Have an SLT that is committed to an evidence informed approach – even when it sometimes seems counter-intuitive.
  • Have a shared understanding about what effective teaching looks like and communicate this – based on research evidence.
  • Use research evidence to shape the curriculum and assessment.
  • Use evidence (such as the EEF toolkit)  to filter and shape whole school approaches and policies.
  • Look out for ‘red flags’ when looking at research and ignore any research that doesn’t appear to be robust.
  • Use CPD activities to communicate and mobilise useful research evidence to staff.
  • Make sure that CPD is shaped by the research evidence for effective CPD.
  • Use effective implementation strategies when planning change – using the EEF implementation guide.
  • Rigorously evaluate interventions to find out if they are working. The ‘EEF DIY Evaluation Guide’ is great for this.
  • Use research evidence to make decisions around strategic funding e.g. the pupil premium fund (look at these brilliant resources from Marc Rowland)
  • Adopt a disciplined inquiry approach to appraisal
  • Be brave enough to stop flogging dead horses.

Here are the slides from my talk:

Posted by Shaun Allison

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The Micro-Rules of Reading: Supporting Students’ Reading in Every Subject

At Durrington we are aware that different subjects work with texts that require very specific reading skills. The texts that students encounter in PE will be very different to those that they encounter in Geography, for example. With this disciplinary awareness in mind, we are currently thinking about how to support students and teachers with the subject-specific reading that occurs day-to-day in classrooms across the curriculum.

A seminal text that is guiding our discussions, and shapes this blog post, is Reading Reconsidered by Doug Lemov, Colleen Driggs and Erica Woolway. This book is a treasure trove of practical explanation, advice and ideas for how to increase the effectiveness of reading instruction in schools so that students are aptly prepared for the demands (and pleasures)of reading in later life.

Sometimes, there can be a propensity to think of reading instruction in schools (especially secondary schools) as firmly rooted in the English classroom alone. Coupled with this, it can be difficult for other subject teachers to find guidance on how to successfully develop the specific reading skills required for their subject. Lemov et al’s book explores how to support students with reading non-fiction texts, a genre category that is fundamental to every discipline, and therefore pertinent to every teacher irrespective of their specialism.

According to Lemov et al, one of the main challenges teachers encounter when asking students to engage with non-fiction texts are the ‘micro rules’. These micro-rules are obvious to experienced non-fiction readers but can be very confusing to novices. Additionally, the micro-rules appear to be more or less significant in different subjects, and so correlate to our understanding that reading is most effectively taught through a disciplinary approach. The micro-rules that Lemov et al identify are:

  1. The universal article: When the refers to an entire species instead of one example. This is commonly found in non-fiction science texts, for example the polar bear has thick, white fur for insulation and camouflage refers to all polar bears, not just one animal.
  2. Synonyms: Non-fiction texts often use synonyms because they are written for publication and so require creative flair. For example, Americans are often referred to as ‘our cousins across the pond’ in UK publications.
  3. Optional parenthetical: Consider the sentence ‘Trout, any of several prized game and food fishes of the family Salmonidae (order Salmoniformes) are usually restricted to freshwater’. Non-fiction texts are aimed at different levels of reader. This means that non-fiction writers often include information in brackets that is an optional extra – some readers will read this and some will ignore entirely or come back to it later. A good example is the use of Latin names when writing about species, as exemplified in the sentence above.
  4. Throwaway references: In non-fiction texts for newspapers, magazines or journals every quote has to be referenced for legal reasons. Readers, therefore, have to know when the reference is integral to comprehension of the text and when the reference can be ignored.
  5. Generic numbers: Writers of non-fiction will often use generic numbers to create an impression. Often, the specific number does not require the cognitive effort of being considered in detail as the reader just needs to recall the general point. For example, a current GCSE Geography exam paper uses the sentence ‘Study Figure 2, a map showing how global surface temperatures might change by 2070’. Here, the reader does not need to specifically know or think about the year 2070 but instead needs the awareness that this sentence requires consideration about a time in the not-too-distant future.

Many non-fiction texts also use a non-linear layout that includes sidebars, captions and subheadings etc. These formats can create confusion about what is important to read, and in what order the information should be read.

Ideas for Non-Fiction Reading Practice in the Classroom

  1. Firstly, make sure that you introduce lots of non-fiction texts. Do this by reading deeply about a single subject across different types of text, i.e. read several texts about the same topic in batches or themes rather than texts about multiple topics in isolation. Alternatively, have a primary text in place and then incorporate lots of secondary non-fiction texts to read around the primary text.
  2. Read aloud non-fiction texts – reading aloud is not just for primary school. Reading non-fiction texts aloud is a great opportunity to for students to access texts that are above their reading age but contain information that they need to know. Reading aloud also models the difference in prosody between a fiction and non-fiction text.
  3. Identify the micro rules that are common in your subject area. Draw attention to these micro rules and explicitly teach students how to navigate and use them for reading in your subject area.
  4. Use real-life non-fiction texts rather than ones that have been adapted for school use. Similarly, avoid simplifying texts that have non-linear formats. Instead, model how to read these texts: students will encounter authentic texts more and more in secondary school and so early introduction is best.
  5. Proficient readers of non-fiction texts have often developed their own rules for reading, but these only come with experience. To support non-experienced readers, it can be beneficial to provide some basic rules to begin. For example, with non-linear texts the reader should never stop mid-sentence and only jump to a sidebar at the end of a paragraph.

Fran Haynes

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