Ideas to improve learning

[Note: This is the text of an email I sent to the science teaching staff at my school in November 2012, after reading one of the school’s weekly Staff Bulletins containing no references to learning. I am pleased to say that these Bulletins now regularly contain references to learning, and to a new teacher-led Teaching and Learning Forum]

What we want: students who are resilient; who carry a ‘growth mindset’; who feel challenged and motivated; who are happy; and who know how to learn.

What this will look like: students are happy

to make frequent mistakes and learn from them; students concentrate on what they are doing and walk out of lessons still asking questions; students confidently and accurately predict their performance in tests and exams, and perform well in them; teachers enjoy teaching.


Some ideason how to get there:

  1. Questioning (first focus of next week’s Y10 learning walks)
    1. The least effective type of questioning is the “guess the answer in the teacher’s head” type. We all do this some of the time (e.g. “Can you remember what we call…?”) but should keep it to a minimum.
    2. The most effective questioning involves a longer conversation. It can start with a closed or open question, but the teacher has to lead the conversation, and encourage students to give each other feedback. For example:
      1. Teacher: “Is sand a solid, liquid or a gas?”
      2. Student 1: “Solid”
      3. T: “Why do you say that?”
      4. S1: “Because it’s hard”
      5.  (to second student): “What do you think of that answer?”
      6. S2: “It is hard, but you can pour it like a liquid”
      7. T: “That’s interesting. [To Student 1] What do you think now?”    etc.
    3. Whenever possible, avoid use of ‘hands up’ questioning. Try using ‘Think, pair, share’ each time you have a Big Question to ask. This has many many advantages (e.g. gives all students ‘thinking time’), and has the added benefit of forcing you to ask better questions! (see ‘further reading’)
    4. Try to direct questions of sufficient challenge to individual students.
    5. ENCOURAGE MISTAKES and praise them. If students fear making mistakes it is a sure sign of a ‘fixed mindset’ and they need to learn to make mistakes in order to develop a ‘growth mindset’. (e.g. “Look at these crossings-out. They are fantastic!” “How many mistakes have you made today? Let’s make some more!”)
    6. Try ‘Pose, pause, bounce, pounce’
    7. (I haven’t got it with me now, but there is more excellent research-based advice on effective questioning in that orange book “Inside the Black Box”)
  2. Feedback (second focus of learning walks this week)
    1. One of the most interesting things I read this weekend about feedback was that feedback with comments only has been shown to be the most effective, and feedback with grades and comments tends to be the least effective!
      1. This means we are in luck: we are being forced to give our Y11s feedback without grades, so they can focus on specific mistakes and how to do better next time.
    2. Student predicting their own grades is one of the most powerful tools for improving their achievement. It tops John Hattie’s list of influences on student achievement, but it is largely down to the students.*
      1. I would encourage you all to ask students to predict how they’ve done on the mock before they see it, and write this down,
      2. and also to decide for themselves on a target, and write this down.
      3. (I may need to further develop the “KS4 Progress Trackers” to include these sorts of self-evaluative grades)
      4. They may predict very low grades or set very low targets now, but over time and with our encouragement they will gain confidence in predicting themselves higher grades, which they will be more likely to achieve.
    3. In order to be able to give effective feedback, students need to know from the start what the success criteria are. Show them what their goal is.
    4. Try to give non-judgemental feedback: accept the student’s current standard, and avoid comparisons with others.
    5. Before giving feedback yourself, try to give students the opportunity to self-assess against clear success criteria.
    6. As I think we all know, the essential parts to effective feedback are:
      1. The positive bit that praises what has been achieved, even if it is very little (e.g. ‘star’ or ‘medal’ or ‘WWW’).
      2. The development bit should be how to improve (e.g. ‘wish’ or ‘mission’ or ‘EBI’) with clear reference to known success criteria.
      3. Where possible a level or grade should be avoided (I know, this sounds almost like blasphemy, but there are many good reasons for this. Primarily I think the problem is that any grade or level immediately and completely takes the student’s attention away from whatever useful feedback you have given)
    7. It turns out that effective feedback for teachers also has a huge impact on students’ achievement. It would be good to set up paired observations, as we did last year, so we can give each other some useful feedback and share ideas. (Watch this space…)
  3. Engaging disengaged boys and girls
    1. Relationships are everything. Invest time in developing relationships with each individual.
    2. Whenever possible, keep all of their work in the classroom and make it easy to find. They may not learn ‘responsibility’ but at least they’ll have some notes they can use. Give clear structures and use the same routines every lesson.
    3. Never accept (publicly) that they will not reach their target. If you do this just once, it will be a battle to get them to believe they can.
    4. Challenge gender stereotypes when they come up.
    5. Always counter “I can’t do any of this” with “Which bit can’t you do yet?” and point out what they can do already. Every single time.
    6. Have a read of this blog for some more tips on teaching disengaged boys (including ‘doorknob’)

*Here’s John Hattie explaining this idea of ‘self-evaluation’ or ‘self-reported grades’ (2.b.)

Further reading / watching:

John Hattie, Visible Learning Part 1 (what doesn’t work NOTE: ‘visible learning’ means teachers and students being able to see, hear and understand students’ learning. It doesn’t mean learning that is visible to observers)

John Hattie, Visible Learning Part 2 (what does work)

Carol Dweck – Mindset website and book

HeadGuruTeacher blog – Think, pair, share


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