The Importance of Questioning


As Andy Tharby and Shaun Allison argue good questioning is a fundamental but “ubiquitous” and “fluid” part of the learning process. Effective questioning should also allow teachers to formatively assess students understanding of a new concept, motivate students to engage in their learning and encourage students to ask their own questions, as such the quality of questioning can make or break a lesson. The question must be asked then – how can we make sure our questioning is effective?

  1. Cold Calling:

Lemov refers to the ‘culture of engaged accountability’ where every student knows that it is a possibility that they will have to answer a question. As such students can’t afford to be RHINOs, Really Here in Name Only, (Oakley et al, 2002), hiding behind their more proactive peers who regularly put their hands up. The awareness that they could be asked a question, ensures that students engage and attend the questions asked rather than “switching off” as they know one of their peers is likely to volunteer an answer. Cold calling also allows you to target your questioning focusing on at risk groups of students or students that require a little persuasion to engage in the lesson.

  1. Hands-up:

The growing popularity of cold-calling, has led to criticism of the traditional hands-up approach, predominantly for the reasons above regarding our in class RHINOs. Hands-up can be used to quickly assess a classes understanding of new content, if many hands go up then it may be assumed that students have understood that concept and you can move on, while few hands may indicate a need to revisit the concept. In “ Making Every Lesson Count” Andy and Shaun recommend that when few students raise their hands, you should question those that have kept their hands down as to what they are “struggling to understand” – this means that “sitting on their hands” is not an easy way to opt-out. Similarly it is important to allow students who have raised their hand to answer as they have attended to the question, thought about their response and therefore merit the praise and opportunity that comes from answering the question.

  1. Open and Closed Questions:

Closed questioning has received a bad press, for allowing only basic answers, while open-questions are hailed for providing a rich tapestry of qualitative data. Open-questions allow student to expand on their understanding, however to discount the value of closed-questions would be incorrect. Closed-questions can force students to retrieve prior knowledge, recall key facts and figures and also allow teachers to assess the base/surface knowledge students have before delving into this in greater depth. As such it is logical to usually start with closed questions before moving onto open questions.

  1. Probing:

It is important that we do not accept superficial or basic answers, therefore while the initial question is important, it is only as good as the subsequent questions that follow it. Although a basic idea, any questioning can be easily developed by considering the “serve and return” idea in which teachers follow up the response to the first question with another question. This fosters the culture in your class that superficial answers will not meet expectations. Going beyond the simple idea of serve and return, teachers may wish to consider “Socratic questioning” which uses a hierarchical set of question themes/stems to challenge students thinking – these questions move from clarification of students thinking (i.e. Why do you say that?) to questions that question the question (i.e. Why do you think I asked that question?). These final questions can be used when modelling metacognitive processes (see previous blog) to encourage students to think beyond the declarative knowledge used when answering a question. A full list of Socratic Questions can be found here)

  1. Dealing with “Don’t know”:

We’ve all been there (typically mid-observation or as a member of SLT drops-in) when a student responds with “I don’t know”. It can be easy to move on, asking another, simpler question or passing the question to another student – anything to avoid the dreaded silence. However if we accept “I don’t know” we run the risk of making this an acceptable norm of our classroom, and an easy out for our students who don’t want to struggle – we must therefore persist. I dropped in on Sam Atkins, our Deputy Leader of Geography, with a year 7 class last week. The students were discussing the impacts of tourism in the Arctic, and Sam was trying to draw out from a particular student how increasing awareness of the negative impacts of tourism might affect people’s holiday decision. Whilst the student understood the negative impacts of tourism he was not making the connection Sam was after. What was great to see was that Sam persisted with his questioning – there were many students around the room that clearly had the answer and were keen to give it. It would have been easy for Sam to ask one of these students, but he did not. Instead Sam reminded the student of what he and others had already said, clarifying this for the student and then rephrased the question without reducing the challenge. When this was unsuccessful, Sam then gave the student the answer but asked him to explain how Sam had reached that answer. On top of this it was clear that in his classroom that the struggle the student was experiencing was normal and neither the student nor his peers felt uncomfortable. Of course there are times when no matter the strategies you out in place a student may still “not know”, the teacher must then make the decision to move on and ask another student, however it is important that the teacher returns to the original student later in the lesson or questioning phase to check they have listened to the correct answer and progressed from the “don’t know” stage to a degree of understanding.


Ben Crockett

Posted in General Teaching | Leave a comment

Supporting Practice

Practice is an essential element in the acquisition of learning something new. Practice is utilising, applying, enacting, thinking about, writing about or speaking about new knowledge and skills so that can be consolidated or enhanced. To learn how to do something students must have the opportunity to practice. In The Hidden Lives of Learners, Graham Nuthall suggests students need to encounter something a minimum of three times if they are going to remember it. Therefore, it is our job as teachers to give students opportunities to practise what is required of them in order to succeed in our subject areas.

In ‘Practice with Purpose’ Shaun Allison offers a useful insight into the research underpinning purposeful practice. The ways Shaun suggests teachers can mobilise the research evidence are:

  1. Plan opportunities to revisit previously studied topics in lessons. You can read about how one maths teacher has done this here.
  2.  Set homeworks that ask students questions about what they have been doing recently, but also have sections on topics that have been studied previously.
  3. Use low stake quizzes at the start of the lesson that require students to retrieve information from last lesson, last month and last term.
  4. When encourage students to devise their own revision plan for your subject, make sure they space out the topics, leading up to the exam. A blank revision calendar will help with this.
  5. Plan the curriculum so that you return to topics over time

This blogs aims to offer three strategies than can be used to support students with ‘purposeful practice’ across all five of the ideas listed above.

  • Knowledge Organisers –  Fran Haynes has written a blog on how to maximise the efficiency of knowledge organisers . They can be useful for ensuring all of the elements needed for practice are in one place, so as a result, they make the student feel more confident about practising the particular task, because they have access to the correct vocabulary.  They can be used to assist students with tasks or questions both in lessons and at home, they can also be used for low stakes quizzes or to fill in blank sections. An example from Computer Science is below:

  • Checklists – Checklists are simple yet highly effective.  They can be used to ‘chunk’ the specification into manageable and digestible sections. If practice is going to be purposeful, it needs to be focused and targeted on a specific area that requires improvement.  Checklists allow students to identify the areas they are weak in and practise that particular topic, rather than just adopting a blanket approach which will be overwhelming. Below is a simple checklist for AQA GCSE PE.

  •  Retrieval Practice – Retrieval practice is essential in terms of supporting long term memory.  It is the act of having to retrieve something from memory, often with the help of a cue. It can be used in many different ways ranging from low stakes quizzing (including questions that go back beyond what they learnt last lesson), verbal questioning during lessons, using  flashcards and Cornell note taking (more on this here).  Planning regular opportunities in lessons for students to retrieve information from memory, as well as supporting them to use this as a revision strategy through flashcards for example, will support their learning.

It is crucial that students are given opportunities to practice, whether it is to retain difficult content or to break down the thought processes to answer exam questions. It is our responsibility as teachers to ensure we maximise the quality of the practice opportunities in our lessons, by providing them resources such as the ones mentioned here, to ensure it is in turn, ‘purposeful practice’.

Posted by James Crane

Posted in General Teaching | Tagged , | Leave a comment

100 things 1% better

On Friday at our DMAT Leadership Conference, Humphrey Walters talked to us about his experience of working with winning teams – you can read more about it here.  One of the points he made is that winning teams don’t make single big changes.  Instead they look where all the fine margins of potential improvement might be and make these changes, across the team.  This is something we have been looking at here at Durrington.

In September we launched our ‘Disciplined Inquiry’ approach to appraisal.  We wanted all teachers to think about a small improvement they could make to their practice and really focus on developing that, over the course of this year.  Alongside this, we have been discussing how we can develop formative assessment and have shaped this around Dylan William’s five key strategies:


Chris Runeckles has written about how these five strategies can be mobilised in the classroom here.

So, the first part of our INSET day today was a celebration of the brilliant way in which so many of our teachers are embracing this approach and taking control of their own professional development.

Formative Assessment

Chris Runeckles kicked off this part of the session by clarifying the key point of formative assessment.  Activities such as quizzing, questioning and feedback are great, however, they only become formative if the teacher changes something about their teaching or the curriculum, as a result of what these activities tell them. He then shared some examples from our staff that he saw on a recent ‘bright spots’ walk around the school:

  • Kelly Heane in English, was using the ‘I, we, You’ modelling technique with her Y11 students.   She had established from her marking certain areas of weakness in a section of the paper and was scaffolding independent practice in this area.
  • Kathy Hughes in maths was using a starter with a mix of different activities.  She was then circulating and giving feedback based on misconceptions and errors from students.
  • Becky Owen in science was using  using homework as a means of formative assessment.  Students were self-assessing their responses but Becky highlighted their incorrect as well as correct answers, and used this as an opportunity to correct misconceptions and deepen understanding.
  • Beth Clarke in history used homework involving an exam question formatively, with whole-class feedback based on common mistakes and misconceptions, to supplement summative grades.
  • Hannah Townsend in geography was relentless with her use of elaborative questioning to really make students think deeply about their knowledge of plate tectonics.  This was great example of ‘the reward for a good answer is an even more difficult question’.
  • Cyrus Dean in music used questioning for formative assessment of tier 3 vocab. He was asking a question, waiting to see how many hands went up and then choosing someone to ask.  As a result, the whole class had to do the thinking and Cyrus could reframe his teaching if very few students appeared to understand the question.

Inquiry Questions

Following this ‘bright spots’ focused on formative assessment, four colleagues shared how they have been developing their teaching, based on the ‘Inquiry Question‘ they set themselves in September.

  • Kate Blight has been focusing on developing her explicit vocabulary instruction in maths.  She has chosen this focus due to the change in format of many of the GCSE maths questions – they now contain far more tier 2/3 languages that students must understand if they are going to access the question.  She has approached this by developing knowledge organisers and encouraging students to use these in a variety of ways e.g. recalling the definition; giving them the definition and then they have to remember the word.  She also now encourages students to underline specific words e.g. regular polygon in a questiondiscuss what ‘regular’ means in this context and then annotate this word for future reference.  As a result, Kate has noticed that her students are happier to attempt longer worded questions and are scoring more marks in these questions.  She is now also a convert to the usefulness of knowledge organisers and the idea that literacy is not something that is just the responsibility of English teachers.
  • John Mulhern has been thinking about his Y10 maths class, which contains a high number of students from disadvantaged backgrounds.   A number of these students lack confidence and are not performing well.  So, John’s focus has been very simple.  He has increased the volume and variety (low demand and high demand) of questions that he asks these students – and does not allow them to ‘opt-out’ of answering. He also uses elaborative interrogation, to further develop their thinking.  As a result he is noticing that these students are growing in confidence and are now far less reticent about responding to questions in lessons.  He is looking forward to their next assessment, to see if their grades will increase as a result of this new level of thinking, that is being generated by his questioning.
  • Ryan De Gruchy has been working with his colleagues in PE to improve the reliability of KS3 assessments.  He decided to focus on this because he was beginning to feel that the subject knowledge of the PE teachers was influencing the accuracy of the assessment judgements being made. Ryan has been using the fortnightly ‘Subject Planning & Development Sessions’ (SPDS) to tackle this issue.  Firstly, subject knowledge sessions have been put in place to ensure that subject knowledge is strong, outside of your specialism e.g. dance, football, netball etc.  Secondly, KS3 groups were videoed and then watched at SPDS to standardise judgements.  This has generated a great deal of useful discussion amongst PE teachers who, as a result, are now far more confident about the formative assessment in their own teaching.
  • Rob Suckling from geography has been looking at the impact of explicit teaching metacognitive processes to his Y10 class, with a particular focus on low performing middle attaining boys.  Rob has employed a variety of strategies to support this e.g. modelling the metacognitive process in lessons (breakdown the question; plan the answer; half-way pause; reflect – did you answer the question?); homeworks that require students to document their thought process when tackling a question; Socratic questioning to deepen thinking.  Rob has already noticed an improvement in the written responses of these students and there have been promising signs of improvement in their assessment scores.

It was incredibly heartening to hear colleagues talk about their practice in such an open and professional way.  This was exactly what we wanted this ‘disciplined inquiry‘ approach to look like, when we launched it in September – teachers identifying an area of their practice that they wanted to improve; using the research evidence to plan a ‘best bets’ approach; purposefully practising this approach in their classrooms; thinking of some way of evaluating the impact.

If every teacher reflects upon and develops their teaching in such a focused and professional way, what a huge impact this will potentially have across our whole team of teachers!

Posted by Shaun Allison

Posted in CPD Events, General Teaching | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Winning Teams

“Building winning teams is a game of inches”

Humphrey Walters

On Friday we held our first DMAT leadership conference.  The theme of the conference was ‘World Class Performance – Winning Teams’ and we got off to a great start with a talk from Humphrey Walters.  Humphrey know about winning teams.  He worked with Clive Woodward to turn the English rugby team into a World Cup winning team and Sam Allardyce to help Bolton Wanderers FC stay in the premiership.  He also sailed around the world (the wrong way) as a part of the BT global challenge team.  From the Olympics we all remember the slogan ‘inspiring a generation’ and the name ‘Team GB‘. These were both Humphrey’s ideas.  So, he has a strong track record of success. You can read more about him here.

Here are some attributes of winning teams from Humphrey’s talk:

  • “Focus on ruthless simplicity & world class basics” – know what’s going to make the biggest difference and focus relentlessly on this.  Stop doing things that are going to waste time and stop you from focusing on what counts. So for schools, what are the aspects of teaching that, based on evidence, have the best chance of success?  Focus on this.
  • “Focus on the critical non-essentials” what are the things that no one else is doing, because they are not essential, but you think will give your team the extra edge?  Make these essential to your team.
  • “Create a winning environment and pride in the badge” – create an environment that makes the people in it believe they are world class and have pride in the organisation.  So for schools, this means a safe, tidy and orderly environment, with high expectations in terms of uniform and behaviour.
  • “Concentrate on what you can control” – in education there are so many things that are out of our control e,g, parents and funding.  So, we should focus on the things we can control e.g. curriculum, teaching, assessment and behaviour.
  • “Look after each other and tell people how good they are” – invest time in your team, check how they are  and look after them.  A part of this is celebrating the strengths of your team and making sure we tell people when they do a good job.  Based on his time as a crew member on a yacht, that sailed around the world, Humphrey says that a winning team should be serious on top and have fun down below’ – work really hard but have a lot of fun.
  • “Do 100 things 1% better” rather than trying to make big changes, focus on doing the basics that little bit better.
  • “Spend more time on the successes than the failures” – of course it’s important to look at what fails, why it fails and learn from it, but it is more important to focus on what’s working, do more of it and do it even better!
  • “No dumb ideas” – create a culture within the team, where everybody feels safe to put forward an idea.  It might just be the idea that results in further improvement.
  • “Dream big but celebrate the mini victories” – set your aspirations high and believe that you can be the best in the world (somebody has to be!) However, it’s important to celebrate the small victories on the way – and congratulate the team for achieving these milestones.
  • “Leadership is key, but followership is just as important” – good teams will have robust discussions about the best way forward.  However, once an approach is decided upon, everybody sticks to it, supports it and gives it their all.  Furthermore, team members should need to be told just once and then do the job really well.
  • “Look for the next gap in the wave” – always be looking out for the next change that is going to get you that next bit of improvement – no matter how small.
  • “Create winning language and behaviours and refer to them all the time” – agree the language and behaviours you want to see as a team and stick to it.  This also means agreeing the language and behaviours you don’t want see e.g. ‘low or high ability’, ‘could we…’, ‘try to…’

Here’s a great summary of Humphrey’s approach to building a winning team.

And here’s a video of Humphrey:

Posted in General Teaching | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Everyday modelling

By Andy Tharby

Modelling is such a vital element of effective teaching. To learn how to do something, students need to watch and listen to experts as they guide them through the process, step by step, before they make an attempt themselves. This also works in reverse through deconstruction. Students start by seeing an example of an end product and work backwards from there, carefully identifying and dissecting the stages and parts that, together, contribute to its overall quality and accuracy.

However, modelling is often a step that is left out the teaching sequence, with teachers too quick to move from explaining a fact, concept or procedure to letting students practise this for themselves. This can lead to misconceptions and the development of poor habits – of work and of mind. Great modelling sheds light on the invisible, and allows students to see the way that the parts join together into a whole. Great modelling allows students to see the ‘moves’ an expert makes and allows us to make our expectations clear, distinct and, most importantly, achievable.

In this post, we will look at a three simple strategies that teachers can use in their day-to-day practice to improve the quality of modelling.

Live Modelling

Live modelling is performing a procedure – be it scripting a text, solving a problem or kicking a football – at the front of the class, often with the help of students. It is a messy and stop-start affair which mirrors the thinking processes that support independent writing. Your students see you, an expert writer, in your subject domain, modelling the decision-making process that leads to a successful piece of work. Many unconscious habits can then be made explicit to students who may never have thought in this way before. The final product then acts as an exemplar for students to emulate in their own work.

Pre-prepared exemplars

There are some advantages to designing models prior to lessons – the ‘Here’s one I made earlier’ approach. Although students will not witness real-time construction you have more time to fine-tune the model and prepare accompanying questions and explanations in advance. A teacher-generated model has the benefit of being bespoke. You can design it to perfectly match the needs of the class with the assessment criteria. You can model a whole product or you can micro-model a key part of the product. Be sure to take the time to analyse and deconstruct these exemplars; you should aim to explain very carefully the procedure or strategy that helped you to create the product in incremental steps.

Departments would be wise design their own set of labelled models (or worked-examples) to  set the standard for all students in the subject. If these are clearly labelled with the steps and success points, students can study these wherever they are, and use them as springboards for their own work.

  3. I-We-You

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.


And finally. Be sure to read this excellent post by Ben Crocket on the Durrington Research school website for more ideas on ‘thinking aloud’ and ‘mastery vs coping’ models.


Posted in General Teaching | Leave a comment

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.












Posted in General Teaching | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

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

Posted in General Teaching, Teaching Forums | Tagged , | Leave a comment