Curriculum intent & design – how not to do it


Whilst curriculum design may be the remit of subject leaders, how much training and guidance do they get? How much time do they get to really think about the principles and values they want to underpin their subject?

From a discussion with a colleague about curriculum, I thought I’d ponder those things that in themselves may not be good rationales designing a subject curriculum or processes for creating schemes.

So this list is intended to support thinking more deeply about what we do. This is in an ideal world of course; we all have limiting factors in decisions we make.

Some are deliberately ambiguous but included to encourage thought and discussion.

How not to do it….

Design & Ordering

  1. Choose the most ‘fun’ topics first
  2. Choose topics in pre-GCSE year just to get students to choose the subject (and then wonder why the GCSE isn’t always like that)
  3. Put topics at the start that need foundational knowledge to understand when they don’t have that knowledge
  4. Design them on your favourite topics
  5. Design schemes that are completely linear and don’t develop skills and knowledge over time
  6. Asking someone else for their curriculum/schemes on a forum and using that (without any thought to the underpinning principles and values)
  7. Teaching a series of stand alone units with no links between units.
  8. Have no consideration of how students will remember over the long term
  9. Trying to include everything and anything to tick a box when it might not be appropriate (literacy, numeracy, SMSC etc)
  10. Designing it for a particular group (that may be underachieving) e.g boys, Pupil Premium.
  11. Design the curriculum around a data collection system (or any other accountability system)
  12. Teach a course following through a text book from start to finish (without consideration if order is appropriate)


  1. Making up assessments after you’ve taught the topic; an after thought
  2. Creating assessment tasks that don’t assess the things you’ve taught
  3. Asking on a forum for an assessment task (when no-one knows what you are going to/have taught)
  4. Designing an assessment task for its engagement/fun with little relevance to outcomes of learning
  5. Think that written assessments are bad
  6. Put in assessment points just to meet data entry requirements
  7. Assess using just GCSE exam questions at key stage 3

Subject content

  1. Teach GCSE specifications at key stage 3 as the curriculum
  2. Teaching knowledge and no skills
  3. Teaching skills and no knowledge
  4. Allow each teacher to decide what they’re going to teach from a subject, so students in the same year group all learn different things
  5. Including ‘everything’ at a superficial level without depth
  6. Choosing ‘easy’ topics that lack rigour
  7. Have no awareness of how your subject links to other subjects
  8. Choosing topics solely due to the existing books/texts you have


  1. Limiting your curriculum it for your ‘type’ of students (e.g. perceived ability, socio-economic status etc)
  2. Ask students what topics they want to learn about and only include them
  3. Designing a curriculum based on skills of the future; preparing students for ‘life’

Knowledge rich teaching? How can it not be?


This is the third and final post on how I would describe my teaching as ‘knowledge rich’. The previous posts in the series can be accessed below.

  1. Planning schemes using knowledge
  2. Direct instruction with focus on context and linking of contexts
  3. Direct instruction & note taking
  4. Testing
  5. Foundation knowledge & depth of knowledge
  6. Use of etymology & focus on keywords

This post will focus on what I do in my classroom to ensure that students are learning the content that I teach them. Learning in this context means to me that in a day or a week or a month and beyond, they can recall correct information.

Direct Instruction

If we are clear on what it is that we want students to know and understand we then have a decision to make on how they get to know it.

My definition of direct instruction here, is just me explaining to them some of the important knowledge or skills. It’s usually me talking, using a pen and whiteboard and sometimes using a powerpoint slide particularly with things like quotations from holy texts or important pictures, that are easier to prepare in advance.


I use images and diagrams to help explain where appropriate. I use the whiteboard as the visual representation of the concept or ideas I’m trying to teach. Anyone walking in and seeing this will probably think it’s a mess but it’s a representation of layers of explanation. It shows a process of explanation not an image of one thing. I include key words, definitions, visual representations of abstract concepts and useless drawings of important things (stick people are common).

But my belief is that this direct instruction isn’t a passive, inactive time for students. It’s the time when they get to think about things; process them. Almost as soon as I start to explain something a hand will go up with a question. That question leads to further explanations. Some questions spark a discussion in the class. Students are processing the information I’ve given them. This is a process that leads to understanding. They ask the questions that help clarify their thoughts. They engage with the content directly. Silently, in their heads, some will be processing what they think about it. I can ‘see’ them pondering the ‘what ifs’ and struggling with the ‘this is different to me’. They’re unusually silent when I’m explaining.  They want more of the ‘stuff’. This is the part of the lesson where they make the links to prior learning. They are developing their schema of the topic and it’s exciting! They can suddenly make more connections and sometimes they audibly share these revelations. They feel clever as they would never have understood this part if they didn’t know the stuff from last lesson. Every episode of direct instruction helps build up a picture. The sharing of and processing of this knowledge is the foundation of everything else they will do.

“And here’s how you should think about memory: it’s the residue of thought, meaning that the more you think about something, the more likely it is that you’ll remember it later……You remember what you think about, but not every fleeting thought—only those matters to which you really devote some attention.”

Daniel Willingham


One way in which I have developed what I teach in this part of the lesson is deliberately focusing on context. There is a danger when thinking about teaching knowledge that each lesson becomes a disconnected series of the important things they should know.

An RE example

For example, if teaching Judaism some people teach: one lesson on Jewish religious clothing, one lesson on Passover, one lesson on the synagogue, one lesson on the Torah etc I have done this in the past when I thought that students needed to know as much about a religion as possible in the time frame. I have now pulled back from this and spend this time looking at the context and core concepts that will allow students to understand things in much more depth. We spend a few lessons looking at Abraham and Moses and the importance of their relationship with God and the situations they were in. We look at why the commandments/mitzvot were a really important thing for them at the time and how the covenant was made. The context of this is very important in understanding Judaism and what Jews do today. If I’d just done lessons on random aspects of Judaism the depth of their knowledge and understanding would be limited as they wouldn’t have the foundations to fully understand the context of each thing within Jewish history.

This means that even though I don’t teach them about the synagogue, if they did their own reading they would understand much of what they read due to the important concepts they had already learnt.

Note taking

There is almost a set routine to this important part of the lesson where I am going to explain important things. Their books and pens are ready, everyone is looking to the board and there is complete silence.

To emphasise the importance they are told to take notes after I’ve explained each part.

This starts in Year 7. Students have to do a mixture of compulsory note taking and then independent note taking. For example I may write a date or definition on the board and they should copy this. However unless I say they have to, they can opt to take additional notes. I leave this up to them.

I show students good and bad examples of note taking from the start. I make suggestions of how they present their work. I want to encourage independence and pride in their work. Some are more creative than others.

I will often start the next lesson telling them to open their books on their notes and specifically ask questions that I know they have the answer to in their books. This means I can ask anybody in the room the same question and expect an answer. I will give them time to look in their notes. This emphasises to them the importance of these notes; they will need them. It also promotes a sense of ‘learning’; ‘we already know this’. It reminds them of the important foundational knowledge we’ve already covered that will be built on in this next lesson.


I have blogged many times on how I do this. It is such a big part of my teaching, lessons and homework.

In relation to the focus of this blog, these are the strategies I use to help them to remember the important knowledge we’ve learnt in class. If they don’t remember the things I’ve explained then what was the point of the lesson? Too often, teachers soldier on to the ‘next lesson’ in their scheme to move forward and forget the important part of helping students to remember each step along the way. These tests are my way of helping students to remember.  All a teacher needs to do is ask themselves these questions at the end of each lesson: When will students use/recall this knowledge again? How will I help them to do this? If the answer is ‘never’, you might as well have not taught that lesson.

Knowledge isn’t everything….

..but it’s more important than I used to think.

These three posts have explained how I have developed my practice to promote the importance of knowledge. They’re snapshots of the aspects of my teaching that I believe put knowledge at the centre. It’s not everything I do. Learning is much more complex than just knowledge.  However I can see the significant difference this emphasis on knowledge had made to student understanding when they have the vocabulary and understanding to be able to ask well-informed questions and discuss things they would never have had the foundations to ask before.

A focus on knowledge – knowledge in the curriculum


This is the 2nd post in a series on how my teaching has become more ‘knowledge rich’. The overview of the series is here.

  1. Planning schemes using knowledge
  2. Direct instruction with focus on context and linking of contexts
  3. Direct instruction & note taking
  4. Testing
  5. Foundation knowledge & depth of knowledge
  6. Use of etymology & focus on keywords

This post will focus on curriculum; what we teach and how it’s organised.

To some extent my experience of teaching will be very different to most. With RE we don’t have a national curriculum with specified content. Agreed syllabuses vary in detail of what should be taught. Some give a small list of ‘themes’ without any detail about what should be taught within them. It essentially means that  many Heads of RE are free to decide whatever they teach.

Also, lessons are infrequent. At the height of nonsense, I taught whole cohorts GCSE, on one lesson a fortnight. Just ponder that for a few moments if you’ve never done it. A child is off sick, you don’t see them for a month. It’s a bank holiday, you don’t see them for a month. It’s Easter holiday, you don’t see them for six weeks. Combine them and you realise you’ll be lucky to get 15 lessons a year; the equivalent to a few weeks for core subjects.

This is relevant to my teaching because now I am very lucky to be in a school that gives more time to RE than I’ve ever had before. This means I can cover more subject content and have to think more carefully about how it all fits together.

Knowledge schemes

One key difference is in our schemes. I don’t really care what you call them but ours are schemes of knowledge or schemes of learning not schemes of work.

Some people write schemes that are based around a question or a statement and then the rest is activities or ideas of what the students can do in the lesson. They focus more on the student activity than what they need to learn.

Ours now take the format of a fairly detailed list of what we must teach the students. For example, instead of putting ‘The life of Muhammad’ and leaving it to teachers to decide what might/might not be included, we specify what we must teach. This includes the key vocabulary we want them all to know. It’s not differentiated. It’s the same for all students.



You might argue that this detail is down to teacher autonomy. It’s not taking this away. It’s up to the teacher ‘how’ they teach it but the important aspect is that every student in every class, no matter who the teacher, gets the same level of knowledge.

The rest of the document is relevant resources that can help explain, emphasise or be used to reinforce this knowledge.  It’s about what helps them to learn the key content not what activities can fill the lesson.

Skills as knowledge

Without getting into the skills vs knowledge debate, I have rethought what I think a skill is and how it can be learnt.

I believe that skills can mostly be learnt as knowledge. That knowledge is the skill broken down into its parts. I will use the example of an essay to explain.

You could say that writing a good essay is a skill in many subjects. However if we unpick what makes a good essay we can teach it as knowledge of how to write a good essay. These might include:

  • Using quotations to support points
  • Logical organisation of points
  • Use of paragraphs
  • Selection of relevant and most important content
  • A conclusion

You can then go into each of these and think what makes ‘a good one’ of these and unpick it further. For example with quotations:

  • Use correct punctuation
  • Correct use of ellipsis
  • Reference to source/author/speaker
  • Embedded into reasoning
  • Explained
  • Linked to point being made


There is knowledge here of what correct punctuation is when using a quotation. Students can learn this as the knowledge of this skill. It is possible to teach these and to assess them fairly simply.  I will discuss this more in the next blog.

Overall, students can understand the skill of writing a good essay as a collection of knowledge about how to do each element. I realise there are some elements that don’t lend itself to this method, for example writing ‘with flair’ or ‘coherence’ are much more difficult to teach. But in my experience these foundation blocks mean that all students can work on small aspects of a larger task and make small improvements which then contribute to the whole.  Students will probably not just improve writing essays if you keep getting them writing essays. It’s these small parts of the knowledge that can help them to improve.

Foundation knowledge and depth of knowledge

I now teach in much more depth. In the past I would skim over key concepts or words. This was partly due to time. When you see them once a fortnight you rush through the basics of what they need to know and you have no time to do any more.

Now I have more time, especially at GCSE. I’m not ignorant of the fact that many colleagues don’t have this luxury. I have time to linger over these key things that are really important and crucially I give time to things that aren’t on the specification.

For example, the life of Muhammad. ‘Muhammad’ is on the specification but I used to do some basics of how he grew up and then what he did as the prophet. I missed out crucial details about what Makkah was like at the time, the focus on polytheism, social injustices and his final speech. Now we spend more time looking at these. If they understand these they have a much better chance of understanding things later on in the course e.g the role of women. They don’t realise it, but much of his final speech becomes the Islam specification content later on. The difference is that before I would teach the specification and link things in, now I teach these things as foundations and within context, knowing they will be applied later. This is foundation knowledge.

(As an aside, for RE colleagues, this is where I am wary of thematic schemes. They can lack the foundation knowledge needed for students to truly understand the concepts to then go on to compare and contrast.)

I also look more at things like etymology (discussed in my first post) and complex beliefs. My students seem to be fascinated the more we delve into things. I don’t find it dry as some colleagues do. It’s fascinating! What isn’t fascinating about discussing that some believe that the bread and wine become the blood and body of Jesus? They seem to love it. Mine know what transubstantiation is even if they don’t fully understand it (many Catholics don’t either!). Learning about holy mysteries are both challenging and interesting for the students.

Piecing together a curriculum

At key stage 3 we have designed our curriculum so that the knowledge of key skills is repeated over time. Their knowledge of how to argue ‘for and against’, how to use quotations to support points etc is repeated over the key stage. Their knowledge and understanding of these skills develops over the year.

year 7

See how the key skills are repeated and developed (in colour) across the topics

We’ve also designed it so that the foundation knowledge builds over the year. We start with Judaism, then Christianity and then Islam. Not only does it help understand chronology but they can see the similarities and differences much clearer and the contexts of each of them. They probably can’t truly grasp why Jesus being a Jew was very important in his arrest and Crucifixion if they haven’t studied the mitzvot and context of Judaism at the time.

I will explain key stage 4 in more detail in the next blog which will look at pedagogy and testing.

Slow feedback ©


Last night I tweeted about ‘slow feedback’ (I made up the name as I typed. I now claim it as mine ©) I thought I’d write a quick blog to explain what I meant and the rationale behind it.

Marking exams takes precious time

Our year 11s did some exams in the final days of year 10. There was no way I was going to mark them before the end of the academic year and to be honest I wasn’t going to spend my holiday doing it either.

The new specifications are huge. Ours has two separate papers. Each paper has 16 questions, ranging from multiple choice to extended writing. They take a long time to mark. I will be honest. I didn’t set full papers for them as I knew it would take a long time to mark. My class has 27 students in it. That would be 864 questions. However I wrote a paper that was a complete mix of content and covered each question type at least 4 times.

We need to consider if the time spent on marking work is outweighed by the benefit to the students? I don’t ‘fully’ mark their work. A few hints, question marks and a simple tick sheet.

No marks. No grades

I don’t give students marks or grades until the last moment I have to; usually their year 11 mock. There is no way I was going to spend hours and hours marking and then they just look at the marks/grade. Because that is what they’d do. They say they won’t, but they would. I know it.  I’ve blogged before on this. Giving feedback alongside a grade is essentially a waste of time. I just go for the feedback.

Whole class feedback

When there are 28 questions to feedback on there’s no way that one lesson will suffice. If you try to do this, students will be overloaded (cognitive load) with feedback. It will blur into one. Some people type up the feedback and give it to the students. I don’t. I type key points onto a Powerpoint as I am reading their work.

I have then spent some time each lesson for the past two weeks giving feedback. I show the exam question and ask them what we already know, point out common errors, in some cases show a model answer and then crucially students are given time to improve their own answer ( we call it ‘green pen’ work. The only reason it’s green is so that it stands out. Nothing else). If I’d fed back on several complex questions they wouldn’t be able to focus on specific improvements. They would be overwhelmed and wouldn’t know where to start. I divided the feedback into manageable chunks each lesson. The added benefit of this is that this is repeating the same skills over and over, not just in one lesson but over two weeks. It supports retrieval practice; revision.

The second benefit is I can stagger my marking. I didn’t give up my whole weekend to do it. I did some each day, in between feeding back.

Delayed feedback?

They sat the papers nearly 8 weeks ago. Aren’t I a bad teacher not giving it back earlier? Well, the first lesson was a test anyway to interrupt the forgetting curve (see here for my blog on why the holiday may not matter for this) and I’m not bothered by the gap. I’ve seen research supporting immediate feedback and delayed feedback. Probably not this gap but it was an exceptional circumstance that is unlikely to happen again. I can actually see a positive in it. Once I’d fed back, they had to reread their own answer to see if they’d make the errors I’d highlighted. In some ways they had to diagnose where they needed to add some of the content I’d recapped and improved their answers with it.

Feedback as revision

As all the questions were from their year 9 and year 10 content, everything was based on retrieval from up to 2 years ago. In my eyes this attempt to retrieve content is part of revision; firstly in the exam and then in the improvement lessons. Some people leave revision to the last few lessons or weeks of year 11. We were revising many topics over these lessons. As long as I include these in our starter quizzes for the next few lessons, they should retain the previously missing content.

There were some questions for which there were clear gaps in knowledge or understanding. This is where I retaught the gaps. They added to the notes they already have on the topic (easy when they work on paper in folders) or created a new page of notes to then file in the correct topic. It wasn’t separate from the original learning notes. This shows students that notes are part of the revision process of checking what you might have gaps of knowledge in.We had to retrieve what we already knew and then added to this. This is revision.

Next lesson they will complete a review of the feedback and reflect on what they’ve improved on in the past two weeks; content and exam question skills. They should have a better view of this from the repetitions over the lessons in two weeks, rather than all in one lesson. It’s slow feedback ©.

Whilst this was an exceptional gap, I can’t see that it would’ve been better if I’d have worked all evenings in the last week of term to give feedback. This process has acted as revision and in my opinion, it’s the best time for it, in lessons.

Last week I told my year 11 this week that I will not be running any after school or lunch revision for them. Feedback is revision. Today, as I repeated this, one student said ‘Miss you should write that on the walls’. I think I might.

design (1).png

*In case you don’t realise, the © is a joke.No-one ‘owns’ any idea on social media…..

A focus on knowledge: Vocabulary rich teaching


This is the first in a series of blogs on how I think my teaching has become more ‘knowledge rich’. The summary of what this means is in the first post here. This post will focus on how I have developed my teaching of subject vocabulary to the stage where I think it can be classed as ‘vocabulary rich’.


My view of the importance of subject vocabulary has evolved. When I first taught I didn’t put much emphasis on words as I felt that the subject content was more important and that subject vocabulary came after the learning of concepts. In the first specification of GCSE that I taught, the first question on the paper was always a keyword, 2 mark question. They needed to write the correct definition. I saw this as something they needed to learn and it was almost separate to further learning. I created subject vocabulary sheets, gave them to the students and just expected them to learn them. No strategies, just the words and the definitions. I was leaving it to chance if they learnt them.

Now, this has changed. My understanding of the importance of subject vocabulary has evolved and over the years I have moved to this model. Some I’ve been doing for a long time (how I introduce words in my explanation) and others are relatively new in my practice. I’ve shifted to believe that vocabulary is the start of a deeper understanding of concepts within and beyond my subject.

Planning subject vocabulary

I’ve now realised that consistency is important. As a result we have written lists of the key terms that we will both use in our teaching for each topic. This means that all classes, regardless of ‘set’ or teacher accesses the exact same words. We plan to use them in our teaching so that students will be able to use them confidently in their own work.


Introduction of a word

When I first introduce a new word, I casually slip it into a sentence. But not just any sentence. A sentence where the students already know the meaning of all the rest of the vocabulary being used. The new keyword is the only word that the majority of them won’t understand. It will either be full of tier 1 words or already ‘known’ tier 3 words. For example, ‘”Sikhs offer free food to anyone in the langar”. They already know what a Sikh is and the remaining words are tier 1 words so the word ‘langar’ stands out.


I only recently learnt this hierarchy of vocabulary 

The definition

The next sentence is then the definition in as much tier 1 language as possible (I would class this as differentiation).

“The Langar is a kitchen that serves food to everyone and anyone, even if they’re not a Sikh”

Explain on board

I then will write the word on the board and annotate it where appropriate. I will use synonyms where possible. I will use examples. I sometimes use pictures if appropriate (although my art work is rubbish it adds to the excitement!). I will explain the word in the context of what they already know, making links and connections where possible. I will usually get students to write down the word and its meaning.


This is usually when the hands go up. The students are starting to process what you’re telling them and have questions about it. They’re beginning to understand the word as a  concept and their minds start applying it to situations which they then want to know about.

A classic in the example above is “Do you really mean anyone? What about a homeless person? They could get free meals all the time”or “Can I get a free meal? Where’s the nearest langar?”

These show that the student is moving from just a word to a deeper understanding of an important concept in the religion or view we are learning about. The key word becomes important ‘knowledge’ in the full understanding of the idea or concept it’s linked to.


In many cases it is possible to share with the students the root or origins of a word. In the past I haven’t really considered this as part of the learning. Now I can see that this is important for several reasons.

  1. Learning the origin gives an extra foundation for them to remember the word. The more they remember about the word itself the more likely they are to remember it. The visual ‘hook’ of a prefix or set of letters helps with the learning. I reference it when getting them to remember; ‘remember what I said about ‘mono’.
  2. It contributes to their wider literacy. They can see links to other vocabulary, out of the subject. It helps them create a vocabulary schema in their heads that can be used in my class, other classes and beyond. I don’t need to make up some nonsense for my contribution to whole school literacy. It’s already there.
  3. They love it! Whenever I explain some of the common prefixes or patterns in letters they seem to enjoy it. Especially when things ‘make sense’. You can almost see it processing in their heads as they realise that a ‘monotheist’ is ‘mono’ and a ‘theist’.
  4. I keep on learning more and more. From a selfish point of view I’ve learnt more from this, and as I love language, it’s very satisfying seeing students enjoying it too.


My knowledge of language has also increased through this focus on terminology. In the new GCSE students needs to know a few Arabic terms. I’ve gone well beyond what they need and have taught them as much Arabic as I can, for example all the prophets in Arabic.  I know more Latin now than ever. (I now wish I’d been made to study Latin at school).

I’ve also taught them how Arabic ‘works’ so they can see the similarities and differences between it and English. For example the root word ‘s_l_m‘ meaning submission or peace. They can see it appear in Islam, Muslims, Salaam etc.  I was particularly pleased when a year 7 exclaimed ‘Jerusalem Miss!’ and realised the s_l_m root was in it.

Our Languages colleagues may or may not agree, but most of my students love to ‘feel clever’ knowing words that aren’t English. I say the prophet in English and they say out loud the prophets in Arabic. Year 7 love it!

It provides ‘cultural capital’ they understand things that are ‘beyond’ their own experience. It stops the ‘them’ and ‘us’ mentality, particularly in the context where I teach.

Over time

From this point onward, I will repeatedly use the term in my explanations and questioning. I will gradually decrease the use of the definition after I say the word, until I don’t add the definition at all. At this stage students begin to use the word themselves when asking a question.

If they use just the definition, I will usually say ‘What is that called?’ or suchlike to get them using the specific word in their own sentences.


This is where things have changed the most in recent years. If we want students to learn, remember and retain these words to be able to apply them independently, they need to be tested on them to help remember them.

At key stage 3, every lesson begins with a ‘quiz’ from previous lessons. This will cover this vocabulary and I may also ask questions about the etymology etc This means they all have to retrieve the key word, not just one of them, which is a limitation of whole class questioning. Depending on the difficulty of the word I will either put the word on the board and ask for the meaning or will give the definition and ask them what the word is. The former being easier.

At key stage 4 GCSE we do much more in-depth, specific testing on keywords which I’ve explained here.


Made for a GCSE student that said they hadn’t learnt their keywords as I was testing them on a day other than Tuesday.


At GCSE the keywords are one-third of student homework. See here for an explanation. This reinforces the importance of the vocabulary as a foundation for other learning.  However, this involves learning words that haven’t been introduced in teaching yet.

When presenting this model people have questioned whether students should learn vocabulary before they’ve learnt the word and the linked concepts in class first. I briefly looked at some research and it seems there is research supporting both approaches. However, I want them to almost learn these by rote so that when we apply them in class they have the foundation knowledge. An anecdotal example of why I’m not overly concerned about doing it this way was giving students an exam question linked to the words they had been given for homework and some students using these in their work even though we hadn’t covered them in class. They clearly knew them enough to apply them independently. Not all can, but some can.

What’s changed?

How do I know these added focus on subject vocabulary is ‘working’? I see it. I hear it. Students use the words in their verbal responses. They use it in their writing.  They start linking concepts due to the vocabulary.

As as subject we have agreed on the words and all students will learn them regardless of ‘ability’ or class. No differentiation by content taught. Everyone gets the same.

I spend more time on vocabulary than I’ve ever done before. I’ve shifted in my belief that keywords are there just to be learnt to answer a definition question. It gives students the confidence in their explanations. I can see in exam answers them using and applying these words well beyond just the definitions that they did in the old specification.

I think that student understanding is much deeper than just a definition used in RE. They can apply this knowledge and can use it outside of RE. It’s a new part of their huge schema of vocabulary. It’s knowledge beyond what they might learn at home or use between each other. Making teaching ‘vocabulary rich’ is much more than knowing keywords. They are the foundation for learning.



A focus on knowledge – how my teaching has changed (short series)


I often see people on Twitter talking about a ‘knowledge rich’ curriculum or a ‘knowledge based’ curriculum and think, if I wasn’t teaching knowledge before, what was I doing? Of course, I’ve always taught knowledge however I have changed my view of it, particularly in how I teach my subject.

This small series of blogs will help to clarify in my own mind what I believe these terms to mean in my own teaching and how I have developed and changed what I do in practical terms. I aim to take it beyond the soundbites of politicians and tweets, to real life exemplification in my classroom. The posts will focus specifically on what I do in the classroom and my justifications.

I don’t know why I changed but almost certainly listening to others on Twitter, reading blogs, books and reading research have had a significant impact. The structures of how I teach has not changed very much; I’ve always believed in teacher exposition, students practising and getting feedback to improve, as a learning cycle. However, the emphasis on what I teach has changed. This small series of blogs* explains what I now teach is more knowledge or content focused.

The things that I feel make my teaching more knowledge based are:

  1. Planning schemes using knowledge
  2. Direct instruction with focus on context and linking of contexts
  3. Direct instruction & note taking
  4. Testing
  5. Foundation knowledge & depth of knowledge
  6. Use of etymology & focus on keywords

The term ‘knowledge rich’ has been accused by some as being the new fad in education. In my case if a new fad means how my teaching has developed in recent years then I seem to have fallen for the fad and it seems to be working.

*I will add the links to the blogs on the list as I write them

Further reading

Why the holidays may not matter when it comes to learning and why my first lessons back will be tests


“Forgetting focuses remembering and fosters learning; remembering generates learning and causes forgetting; learning causes forgetting, begets remembering, and supports new learning.”  Bjork 2011

I’ve seen some online articles that raise concerns with the length of the school holidays. Whilst there may be other concerns, I don’t think they’re overly problematical in terms of learning.  This is because this time can be classed as ‘forgetting time’, which research suggests may help with learning.

Why forgetting is important

I’m not going to do a literature review on why. I will just recommend this brilliant chapter from Bjork (2011) to do that. He says that “forgetting [is] a facilitator of learning”. It is actually part of the learning process.

He goes on to say “any forgetting will therefore increase the acquisition of storage strength”; forgetting during the holidays, might just be a useful thing. However, most research focuses on comparatively short delays between learning and retrieval e.g. hours, days, 1 week.  There is little that suggests what the length of the forgetting should be for a two or three-year GCSE course, for example.

Twitter colleague Damian Benney has written a great blog on what he thinks the optimal time should be. He references Cepeda et al (2008) that are clear on this, “To put it simply, if you want to know the optimal distribution of your study time, you need to decide how long you wish to remember something.”. We know this for GCSE. It’s not 100% guaranteed but if we start to consider our forgetting gaps, as Damian is, could we begin to work on finding some suggested optimal timings for retrieval?

Conversely, they also conclude “If a person wishes to retain information for several years, a delayed review of at least several months seems likely to produce a highly favorable return on the time investment”. Is this evidence that the holidays might not hinder but actually support learning? It seems a possibility.

There is however, a caveat to regarding holidays as ‘good’ forgetting time. I believe that this doesn’t work if the first retrieval is after the 6 week break. A teacher cannot just give a test on the first day back and expect students to do well without the previous retrieval opportunities. The classic Ebbinghaus model of forgetting suggests that without retrieval we will quickly forget what we learn over a matter of minutes/hours.  Taking the research into consideration, it suggests that it only works when there have been previous recall opportunities with increasing gaps.

This has implications for the learning 1-2 months before the holidays. Spacing of topics needs to begin from the moment something is ‘learnt’ with increasing gaps. All the holiday provides is the larger gap between retrievals. If a student hasn’t ever retrieved something before the holiday then the forgetting curve kicks in and it becomes much more difficult to retrieve.  Unscientifically, I suggest that the first retrieval after the holiday should be the 4th or 5th time it has been retrieved, not the 1st.

If we followed this argument through, I might even suggest that the last week/s of the summer term should be dedicated to retrieval practice. You might call these end of year tests (that are truly at the very end of the academic year in the last days i.e without time to mark and write reports as sometimes they’re used for). Or you could have a ‘quiz week’. It really doesn’t matter what it’s called, but two things could be important: 1) There is no new content being learnt at the end of term, as there won’t be the time for the initial retrievals in school and 2) They are part of a planned, spaced, retrieval programme.

A test the first lesson back

So, whilst some may think I’m an evil teacher giving students a test on the first lesson back, that’s what all my GCSE classes will get. Not because I’m evil but because I want them to learn from day 1. It will get them to retrieve learning from the previous year/s of the course to try to breach the 40 day gap of forgetting.  Instead of just reminding them of what we’ve learnt before, Kornell et al 2011 suggest that “Retrieving information from memory produces more learning than does being presented with the same information”. Their test might just be best for learning itself.

I don’t care about their result. I don’t use marks/scores. It’s the importance of this event in the forgetting/long term memory plan that matters. Bjork 2011 says that “retrieving information from memory is a learning event”. My students are used to this. We do it all the time in class. I believe that students do want to get back into their school routine in September, in my classroom. Some will be relieved to start answering the questions. I’ve not heard a complaint from any of them to date. They know it’s about learning not performance.

Considering these points, might teachers begin to plan their curriculum around the gaps that holidays create to be the ‘forgetting’ part of learning? Could we consider holidays to be one of the key aspects of learning instead of worrying about students forgetting and not remembering? With some considered planning, I think we can use holidays to our advantage.

Referenced reading/research

Why we need to structure learning for students


I’m really lazy. I have an online exam to complete. I’ve done very little work for it. Even though I sit blogging about the importance of spaced practice, I’ve completely ignored the research and gone for cramming. Why? Because humans are generally rubbish at organising themselves and are that awful word, ‘lazy’.

So if we as adults can’t structure our own learning, why do we expect students to be able to do it? At worst we expect them to do it with no guidance on how they could do it but similarly expect them to self organise by saying ‘study at home’ or ‘revise’. Depending on your school, maybe 5% will do this. The rest will either not do it or do the minimum at the last minute.

It’s our job, not just to teach our subject but to teach how to learn effectively and model it in our teaching. Sadly, this has got a bad reputation in some areas. Earlier in my career I was involved in ‘Learning to Learn’ lessons which, I know now, had some dubious content and ironically didn’t cover some of the main research on learning itself.

Giving students lessons or tips or booklets on how best to learn in their own time will probably have limited effect. Just like me, they will know what is best but just won’t do it. Teachers need to base everything they do on learning; from curriculum structure and content, to lesson planning and homework. We need to ensure that all of these have the foundations of learning built in them to make learning as hassle free but structured as possible.

I’ve already blogged on how we do this for:

However there was a gap in what we do that will be a new structure for 2018-2019 for my students.

One of their homeworks is to learn new keywords from given lists. To support them they can create revision cards (last year we made them make the first set as an example) and we have the words as Quizlet quizzes (non-account based so I don’t see who has done what). However, we are trusting students to do this between the keyword tests.

As students have to improve their score each time, there is a small incentive to do the work, but I’ve found that with 3 groups this year, some just haven’t bothered. They make excuses like ‘I can’t learn them’ or ‘I’ve never been able to do this’. I just don’t believe them. The huge majority can improve by 1 mark each week if they test themselves over and over; they just don’t bother. They probably cannot self regulate over the two weeks the repeated testing. So I’ve decided that, as soon as a student doesn’t improve in the subsequent test, I won’t be using their break to help them I’ll be giving them structure ready for the next time. It’s not that they can’t learn the keywords it’s that they can’t strcuture the process themselves that’s the usual problem.

We use google forms a lot as they can help with retrieval practice and self mark; a double win. Up until now these have mainly been on content and the keywords have been down to the student. Now I’m making a quiz for each set of keywords.

I did ask Twitter for any research on how best to structure these:


However as yet I don’t have any research, either way. The easiest for me to organise is to give the definition, and this is how it will be in their exam. However the test that this links to, they have to write the definition themselves so it may be better the other way round. If I have time I’ll do both and mix it up.


The students that haven’t improved since last time will be given the link to this quiz and will be told to complete the quiz, probably 4 times, in a spaced way over the two weeks. How will I know if they have done this? This is the beauty of a google form:

It tells me who has completed, it, their score and crucially for this purpose, when they’ve done it. I can check that they complete them at spaced intervals. If they then can’t do this themselves, I will provide the spaced intervals for them (at break/lunch). The aim is to get them into the habit. This should then provide one week of success which can then be used to show them it ‘works’ and then the excuses can only be ‘I haven’t done it’ as opposed to blaming their learning capacity. I think this should help give students the structure that they need for this part of their 3 homeworks.

I will also put another copy of the quiz for students that just want to use it as part of their own spacing. I won’t check that one; it’s just for themselves.

This is what I’d call ‘closing the gap’; finding the holes in what we do and filling them with something that structures learning for students. It’s like using stabilisers. Some will need this at the start and then will hopefully go on to see that these processes work and can do them themselves. I really wish my teachers had done this for me.

Constructing a coherent key stage 3 assessment system


I’m embarrassed to admit that I hadn’t really considered how assessment might be a coherent system in key stage 3 until recent years. This process began when we were asked to consider how we would assess in our subjects when levels were no longer necessary. We’ve been lucky enough to be given the time to continue to develop our ideas over the past couple of years rather than having to have a  system that we were stuck with. Sadly, some schools hastily implemented new systems that were essentially levels rehashed. I blogged on the ‘Emperor’s new clothes’ of levels here and how some have replaced levels with levels.

At the start of this process, I initially thought about what it is that we wanted to assess. I ended up with a lot of potential ideas. This is where RE colleagues are divided; what can/should we assess in RE. I took ideas from the new A Levels and GCSE. I don’t believe that it is our job to attempt to assess things like empathy or students’ own opinions. I think that students should be taught argument writing skills and key ideas of critical thinking in order to create coherent, well evidenced arguments. Alongside this we should be clear what knowledge we want them to learn and be able to apply throughout the keys stage.

assessment chart

Our original ideas started with far too many things for the curriculum time we have. We have reduced what we assess down to very few things. We see year 7 once a week; it would be impossible to assess everything all the time. Reading Daisy Christodoulou’s book ‘Making good progress’ confirmed my instinct that we don’t need to assess everything all the time. I’ve come to the belief that less is more; they shouldn’t be doing everything needed for GCSE at key stage 3 and key stage 3 shouldn’t be full of GCSE exam questions. However, key stage 3 should be a foundation for those who take GCSE but also a foundation in logical argument skills if they choose not to continue their study of religions.

We’ve treated the skills as we have treated knowledge. In order for students to develop and improve their skills we have repeated them and spaced them over time. However knowledge itself is really important. It is included in two ways. Students are tested using multiple choice quizzes at the start/middle/end of each topic and then these quizzes are spaced/interleaved throughout the year. We’ve yet to do this across year 7 and year 8. I’ve not heard of anyone doing this and I’m not sure that it’s necessary with so little curriculum time. I’m prepared to be challenged on this.

The second way we look at knowledge is through these written assessments. We look for depth of knowledge and use of specific keywords to show their understanding of the content they’ve been taught.

The tracker above shows the frequency of coverage and at the moment they are used as a RAG system. We have 6 ‘assessments’ over the year, one each half term indicated by 1a, 1b etc. These are linked to clear, ‘objective’ criteria for each element. For example, using quotations includes using quotation marks, referencing and explain what the quotation means.

I’m currently pondering if this is sufficient as there can be many ways that a student partly meet the criteria yet the system isn’t detailed enough to show this. I want to keep it simple but it needs more clarity of development. Any thoughts/ideas on developing this, welcomed.

Is it a levels system?

The key to ensuring that this isn’t levels rehashed is that we don’t have to amalgamate these individual aspects of their learning to create one letter/number/level/grade. We use this tracker and other sources to use out professional judgement on whether students are making progress. It’s not a science but we’re moving towards making it as clear and objective as possible.

This system has the same issues as many assessment systems. One written assessment is not necessarily a true snapshot of what a student can do. Using it to consider progress is full of flaws. However, as we continue to refine it I feel it is better than using generalised summary statements or grades that conflate everything into one. We’re still working on it. Suggestions welcomed.

5 simple ways to encourage meta-cognition


It is important that supporting pupils’ metacognition and self-regulation skills isn’t seen as something ‘extra’ for teachers to do, but an effective pedagogy that can be used to support their normal classroom practice.

EEF 2018

1. Why this is wrong

If in class questioning/discussion, you can ask the student themselves why their answer is wrong or ask another student to explain why. If in written work use WTIW (Why This Is Wrong -I just made that up) and get students to write a brief explanation to show they’ve understood the error.

At GCSE our students write their own multiple choice questions. This is always a good time to identify misconceptions if they credit an incorrect answer. WTIW is a quick way for them to correct their work and learn from their error. They won’t learn from a  ’X’ on their work.

2. Use a visualiser* 

There are lots of ways it can be used but using it alongside your own live commentary whilst ‘being a student (guided practice)’ is very useful.

I put a GCSE question on it, and unpick and annotate ready for answering the question. What does this word mean? What quotation could I use? What core knowledge/teaching can I reference?

They don’t even need to answer the question. Practising the thought process and annotation is powerful by itself.

* other methods are just as effective: interactive whiteboard, annotation on whiteboard, overhead projector…

3. Why did we do this?

A simple strategy to get students thinking about the value of an activity; ask them why you got them to do it. If there isn’t an answer that links to learning then you may want to rethink the activity.

4. This is a good one (or WAGOLL if you want another acronym)

Modelling a good version of the outcome you want from students gives them something to visualise. A worked example or a sample answer does the job. Discuss why it’s good. Annotate and highlight the important parts.

One way I do this is to write a ‘perfect’ answer on a slide and for the following slides copy the same answer then take one element away from it each slide . I get students to identify which part is missing each time. A kind of spot the difference that allows them to identify all the aspects that make it a great paragraph.

5.  What do you need to focus on?

None of the nonsense of walking into a classroom asking students what their target is or what they need to do to get to the next level. If teachers are explicit in what students need to be able to do in the specific skill or topic they’re studying they should also know what they need to improve on which cannot be answered in a simple sentence to the stranger coming in the lesson.

Students won’t know what they need to do better by osmosis; give them the criteria of what makes a good one and then use their own work to identify what needs improving. Teacher feedback should use the same language. Ambiguous phrases like ‘add more detail’ and ‘revise more’ are not acceptable.

A simple way I do this is to feedback on a piece of work with one or two things they need to do to improve. In their next piece of work they write these on a sticker (could easily be written at the top of the work) and then they must ensure that they complete these things in the new piece of work. They can colour code them and then highlight in their work where they’ve addressed  them. Repeat with the same targets in the next few pieces of work. Just because they’ve done it once does not mean they’ve nailed it.


EEF Metacognition and self regulated learning (2018)

Summary poster