Archives for the month of: July, 2017

Until now, all the restaurants in my town have been French. I love French restaurants. In fact, I make a living as a consultante to French restaurants, telling them how to be really French, but that’s by-the-by and not relevant at all to what I am about to tell you.

Last week it was announced that a new restaurant was coming to town: “Buana Pizza Pasta”. This is an outrage. While it is admittedly the case that a great many people have expressed a desire for Italian food, indeed that they are really fed up with French, the fact remains that the head chef of this new establishment is has fewer years in the restaurant industry than me. I’m not going to talk about my objections to Italian food here, but rather my grave concerns about the staffing of this restaurant. Never mind the head chef has published three widely-acclaimed books on Italian cooking. It’s well known by everyone that wisdom and expertise are in direct proportion to years in the kitchen/ going round other peoples’ kitchens telling them how to be better.

This is a terrible business because the taxpayer’s money should not be spent on such an obviously terrible restaurant. Hang on – oh it’s a private enterprise isn’t it – er, yeah, that simply proves the neo-liberalist conspiracy of which this is a part. Yeah.

Of even greater concern is the fact that all people wishing to dine out are going to be forced to eat in this restaurant. Oh – people can choose to go there can’t they – er – let me think – I’ll come back to that one…

Shit – what if everyone chooses to go there?

It’s tempting for teachers to use “extras” as well as the school’s behaviour system. They might want to do this because it works for them, or because they think it’s kinder to pupils, or because they like it or are simply used to doing it. Examples of these extras include: 
A “look”

A phone call home

“Keeping back”

A bollocking
Using extras must be avoided at all costs. Extras confuse pupils because they are not used by all teachers. They weaken the system by diluting it. They create resentment among pupils because they expect one thing but get another. They discourage other teachers from using the system. The system must be used by all teachers with no omissions and no extras. 

If a child has got a question wrong, we want them to improve their knowledge until they will get that sort of question right. Great. We can do reteaching and intervention questions in purple. But what if they get all the questions right? You can’t be any righter than right, if the answer’s 12V then you can’t make it more 12Voltish. Extension work, of course, is the answer we are given. But I’d like to question the value of extension work too.I’d like to make it clear here that I oppose differentiation as a forward-looking element of planning. I never ever want to plan an activity for Little Sammy to do because he’s bright but Little Katy won’t get on to that because she’s slow. But we do need something valuable for pupils to do when they’ve got everything right – when they’ve “mastered” the area, while others in the group are still practicing to master that area. We might hope that “extension work” can meet this need.

But let’s look at what extension work can mean in science. It might mean harder questions on the same topic. But this isn’t as straightforward as it sounds. Science does follow the difficulty model but that doesn’t mean there is an infinite hierarchy of difficulty in the questions we can set for each topic.

What determines the difficulty of questions is actually really interesting. Some questions are more difficult than others because they deal with more abstract concepts. For example, internal energy requires thinking about several things we can’t see, such as particles, work, kinetic energy, and potential. This is much more abstract than How geothermal energy works, and therefore harder.

Another reason a question can be difficult is if it is on a topic with high levels of element interactivity. This is when there are lots of factors that affect the solution and must be considered together. An example is momentum, where the mass and velocity of two objects must be considered along with an equation and a law. Contrast this with efficiency, where we just need to consider one short equation.

But if we are looking for extension work on a particular topic, questions from a different, harder topic just won’t do.


So we can try and make a harder question on the same topic. Some topics in science lend themselves very well to this – some examples are circuits and balancing equations.


We can make questions on these topics more difficult by increasing the element interactivity or the number of stages needed to reach the solution.


But other topics do not lend themselves to many levels of difficulty. We might be able get two or three levels of difficulty in questions on topics like the wave equation or uses of the electromagnetic spectrum, but after that there are no more levels of difficulty available without introducing new content. For these topics I’m not prepared to reserve the hardest questions for extension because they’re not that hard and all pupils need to be able to do them. We can’t just conjure up extension questions all the time because of the nature of scientific knowledge:


Not all knowledge in science has the same potential for increasing difficulty of questions. When we put knowledge at the centre of our curriculum we can see that extension work actually can not meaningfully exist in many cases.


We’ve seen that higher level difficulty tasks are not appropriate to all topics. What about extension work that introduces more knowledge, stuff you don’t need til A-level perhaps? This sounds lovely until we remember that forgetting curve! Little Sammy’s performance might be at 100% for this lesson, but he is unlikely to achieve 100% in his exam because he will have forgotten things.


Wouldn’t it be much better for a pupil who has got all the questions right to spend “purple pen time”, redoing questions from previous lessons for retrieval practice? This will often do more than anything else to improve the pupil’s final grade. Having all the topics, questions and answers together in one book like this makes this practical in the classroom.


I’m not saying we should not teach beyond the test, there are many instances where I think we should. But these instances should be driven by the knowledge, by the fact that a pupil’s schema will be more complete, more satisfying and more memorable because it is augmented by this extra knowledge. Here’s an example: Pupils are not required to explain the cause of the normal force or friction. But pupils often harbor a misconception that static and inert objects do not exert forces. If we teach that electrostatic repulsion between atoms is responsible for these forces, that misconception is easier to overcome. So I teach this extra material, because of the nature of the knowledge itself. We should not introduce extra knowledge because it fits our model of feedback, lesson structure or differentiation. There are better uses of our pupils’ time.



Inspired by Anders Ericsson’s “Peak”, I want feedback to pupils on every piece of knowledge and then opportunities for more practice in light of the feedback.


I’d like to pause a minute to look at feedback, how it has been going wrong for me in science and why I believe textbooks on this model offer such a powerful improvement.

My school at the moment has a feedback policy of written comments in pupil books using the headings What Went Well and Even Better If. We also have Act Now so we always give the pupils a task to do to improve their work. We have purple pen time in lesson in which every pupil has to use the feedback to improve their work. Now, to be fair to my school, it’s been turned around from being quite famously bad to quite amazingly good in terms of behaviour. I’m a big fan of the Keep It Simple Stupid principle so I understand the adoption of a one-size-fits-all feedback policy. We’re moving into the next stage now as we’ve got behaviour right so I’m hopeful they will consider the need for subject-specific feedback policies. Allow me to present the need for subject-specific feedback policies.

WWW/EBI might work for a quality model, i.e. where the work is a biggish task like an essay. If a pupil writes an essay, I can perhaps tell them that their argument is strong but they need to structure it better. I might use an exemplar to illustrate what I mean. I might make specific recommendations such as “present the arguments and counter-arguments alternately”.

(There are in fact arguments that subjects assessed using the quality model are best taught using smaller tasks that are more like those on the difficulty model, but we’ll leave that for now… )

The fact is, science is a difficulty-model subject. Not only is the final assessment of science, the exam, a series of short-to-medium questions of varying levels of difficulty, I argue that the best work in our lessons is to do many questions, often even shorter than exam questions. Questions on every piece of declarative knowledge we want pupils to have, and repeat questions to build fluency in every piece of procedural knowledge we want them to have. Questions that have single, right-or-wrong answers. Questions like the ones in my textbooks.

It’s possible to create WWW/EBI/ACT statements for pupil work on these questions, but it’s undesirable for the following reasons:

  1. It’s hard. I’ve spent too long looking at books wondering what I can say in this format that makes sense.
  2. It takes too long – both because it’s hard and because it’s written in each book
  3. Giving WWW/EBI-type feedback encourages us to change what we do in our lesson to fit the feedback model. In the past I did loads of write-ups of experiments because it was easy to give comments like: WWW: you gave evidence for your conclusion. EBI: Describe the quantitative relationship between variables. But this is the tail wagging the dog. Our feedback needs to work for our lessons, not the other way round.
  4. The fourth reason why WWW/EBI is undesirable in Science is this: We can do so much better. If we check each answer in lesson, against pre-prepared answers, pupils can get what, 20 pieces of highly specific feedback in one lesson alone. If we then re-teach where needed, and provide equivalent questions for pupils to do having received feedback, then we can create something like deliberate practice that matches the nature of our subject instead of distorting it.

I believe textbooks can be the foundation of better feedback in science.

Underneath all the questions in my textbooks, I’ve put all the answers. Pupils self-mark in red. Pupils comparing their work with the answers is feedback, and crucially they’re getting feedback on every single question, not just the blob of “their work for that lesson”. I’m getting pupils to write a note of metacognition next to any wrong answers.

Often they can see what they did wrong, so they describe it.

If they don’t know why they got the wrong answer, they put a big “RT” next to the question. I can scan pupils’ books as I go round, and this is made easier by them marking in red: This is feedback from pupil to teacher. I can re-teach areas that are needed. This is “adaptive teaching” as Dylan Wiliam says. For every question that pupils got wrong, they have to do the equivalent question in purple.

Then they can mark again using the answers.

This is, I hope, getting close to the deliberate practice described by Ericsson, that leads to expertise.

I’ve been using whole-class feedback on top of this, 20 minutes to read books for a class of 30, if you get them to hand in books open at that lesson’s page. I check they’ve been using the feedback system properly, and add any extra feedback that’s needed. We then spend 5-10 minutes as a class making any further improvements with the help of the visualiser.

This model for feedback feels nimble and responsive, precise, in fact it’s highly personalized – but in a good way! It’s really exciting to see pupils’ work, often there are just tiny little bits of purple pen in a sea of black but you know it’s exactly the bit they needed to go over, and you can see straight away if they got it right the second time round because they self-mark in red again. Using textbooks in this way means that feedback is powerful, deliberate practice can take place, and every single pupil can make the most of every second in the lesson.

 I used to think I was really ace for never using textbooks.

In my lessons, I said, you’ll be active learners.

You’ll learn by doing practicals, because that’s what real scientists do.

You won’t be reading about science – you’ll be doing it.

What a prat I was.



Like many people here today, I had something of a Twitter-induced epiphany – a Twittiphany? – and got switched on to what they call “traditional teaching”.


To knowledge, and the teacher as expert.


To direct instruction, for effective and efficient transfer of knowledge.

And strong discipline as a necessary precondition for great teaching.


In the past I had always believed my superiors when they told me things like “teacher talk is bad” and “pupils don’t learn out of textbooks”. I wanted to be a good employee. And yet. I wanted my pupils to get good grades, and I could get them, but only by (whisper) talking to them about what they needed to know and doing lots of (scowl) practice on paper.


I drive an automatic car. I needed to learn quickly when I moved out of London and that was the best way. I’m always slightly embarrassed about it. I can get from A to B as well as the next man, but I’ll always be doing it in a slightly crap way, because I’m not driving manual.


Traditional teaching used to feel like an automatic car. I could make it work and it could get me where I wanted to go, but I thought I was doing it in a crap way. I thought “if only I was somehow better, I could use progressive methods and get results.”


This is why my “Twittiphany” has been so uplifting. Now that I know that traditional teaching is a proper thing, with research and history and advocates and books about it… I feel like all the cells in my professional being are aligned, all pulling in the same direction, all internally consistent and coherent. I feel like I can do things that work for my pupils and know that there’s a whole body of leaders, teachers, and bloggers who have got my back. For the first time in a very long time, I want to lead a department because I no longer feel like an outsider, like there’s a piece missing from me that’s stopping me make it work how it’s supposed to. So I’m so so grateful to Tom Bennett for ResearchED and all the other bloggers and tweeters who’ve helped me to reach this point.


Anyway. After I’d recovered a bit from the ecstasy of my Twittiphany, I marched off to get the science textbooks to use in my brave new traditional classroom. Oh. It turns out that while I was very wrong in thinking I was ace, I was right not to use these textbooks. For a start, they’ve got what my esteemed colleague Deep Gatorra has called “doublepagespreaditis”.


On one double page “spread”, for example, we find the the motor effect, Fleming’s Left Hand Rule, magnetic flux density, and electric motors. This is cruising for a cognitive overload. Fleming’s Left Hand Rule is hard. Electric motors are hard. It doesn’t work having all this together on one page like this. And questions for pupils to practise on? Yeah, er, 7 for that double page spread. There was no way I was going to use these in my lessons. So, inspired by blogs by Olivia Paris Dyer and Joe Kirby, I set out to make my own.


I did a fair amount of reading for this project and I found some explanations for why several things in science education and science textbooks have not been working for me. Happily, I found pointers for what we can do better.


In “The Reading Mind”, Daniel Willingham says “In order to become a proficient reader, one must read a lot.” How many lessons have I taught with no reading whatsoever? Writing, and talking about science, and practicals, but no reading? And how many times have I been frustrated with poor reading for revision and exams? There is a link between these two things and I have only just realized it! I think school science has suffered because we have sacrificed reading on the altar of “engagement” and “activity”. More privileged pupils will do ok under this system but the gap will only widen for those less privileged. I want textbooks that pupils read every single lesson, so that all pupils, regardless of their background, can become fluent at reading scientific texts.


In “Why Knowledge Matters”, E.D. Hirsch says: “The almost universal feature of reliable higher-order thinking about any subject or problem is the possession of a broad, well-integrated base of background knowledge related to the subject.” I want textbooks as a source of first-class knowledge for my pupils. I want them to be explicit about every single piece of declarative knowledge, the facts, descriptions and explanations of science. And I want them to be explicit about all the procedural knowledge, all the calculations and diagrams and processing of science. By doing this we can put knowledge at the centre of our curriculum.


In “Why Don’t Students Like School?”, Daniel Willingham (again) says: “Memory is the residue of thought”. I think textbooks haven’t worked in science because they’ve treated questions almost as an afterthought, a garnish. I want textbooks that treat questions as the means to plant knowledge in pupils’ minds. Every – single – piece of knowledge in the curriculum.



In “Peak”. Anders Ericsson describes “deliberate practice”, the “gold standard” for learning reaching the highest level of performance. Deliberate practice is practice “involving feedback and modification of efforts in response to that feedback.” A classic example is in music where a student practices exercises repeatedly, is observed by their teacher, and then given directions and exercises to further refine their playing.


In “Making Good Progress?”, Daisy Christodoulou talks about the Quality Model vs the Difficulty Model for different subjects. Subjects assessed using the Quality Model are those such as English and Art where a biggish piece of work, like an essay or a painting, is judged against criteria or other pieces. Subjects assessed using the Difficulty Model are those such as Maths and Science where pupils are assessed on their answers to questions of a range of difficulty. These questions have only one or a small number of possible correct answers.


I think feedback in science has failed because it has been based on a quality model while Science follows the difficulty model. I think textbooks in science have failed because there has been too little emphasis on the questions and their answers. I want textbooks that contain the answers to all those questions, so as to allow a feedback model that serves the structure of scientific knowledge. In this way we can create the conditions for deliberate practice by our pupils, so that they can reach the highest level in the subject.



There is nothing more critical than the knowledge we give our pupils and the questions we set them to make them think about it. And yet these are often thought up off the cuff in lesson or when trying to fit planning into our overcrowded days. I want textbooks that contain carefully constructed expositions of knowledge and questions so that this most critical element of our teaching never suffers because we’re busy.