Time to change the language of learning or is it just semantics?


I’ve blogged already on why I think revision needs to be ditched. The term revision in secondary schools is generally used synonymously with ‘cramming’, ‘learning something you don’t already know’  or at worst ‘a teacher giving up their holiday to put in more work so that you might pass your exam’.

In a discussion with colleagues about interleaving and using testing for learning there has been a discussed about using the word ‘test’ with students. I think that currently this is synonymous with ‘SATs,’ ,’ GCSEs’ and ‘high stakes tests that define you or determine your future’.

Is it time to change the language we use or begin to redefine those we already have?

Which words need to change?

Suggestions for those above might be:


  • Learning
  • Checking learning
  • Embedding
  • Check points
  • Diagnosis
  • Recapping


  • Quizzing
  • Low stakes test
  • Checking
  • Learning

What other terms and phrases could be redefined? Special needs? Differentiation?

Or is it a waste of time whilst the high stakes versions still exist?


‘They need to remember this in three years time’: Spacing & interleaving for the new GCSEs


Yesterday I spent two hours with a colleague discussing the research on memory and how spacing, retrieval and interleaving works. The aim was to consider our new GCSEs which will be running over a 3 year period (year 9-11).

Whilst we didn’t decide anything concrete, mainly because we don’t have approved specifications, we did discuss the possibilities of applying the research in these areas to our plans. It was great to discuss ideas, pose problems and compare how things might work in our subject areas (I’m religious studies and he is science).


Scribbles from discussion: possible use of HW quizzing

We found that the previous research  does not definitively conclude how we should go about this, and in some cases contradicts itself,  but gives us some suggestions that we might trial.

“To efficiently promote truly long-lasting memory, the data presented here suggest that very substantial temporal gaps between learning sessions should be introduced – gaps on the order of months, rather than days or weeks. If these findings generalize to a classroom setting – and we expect they will, at least with regard to learning ‘‘cut and dry’’ kinds of material – they suggest that a considerable redesign of conventional instructional practices may be in order.”

Optimizing Distributed Practice: Theoretical Analysis and Practical Implications –  Nicholas J. Cepeda,Noriko Coburn,Doug Rjohrer,John T. Wixted,Michael C. Mozer,and Harold Pashler

We came up with some questions that we need to answer or at least trial solutions over the coming years:

  • Over a 3 year period what is the optimum gap and retention interval between the initial studying, restudying and the GCSE exam? Research suggests 5% of the time for a year, what about 3 years?
  • How many restudies would be needed and after which period of time?
  • How much would constitute as ‘over learning’ over the 3 years?
  • Would students get fed up with constant testing & quizzing?
  • Does the testing need to be in different forms? Does it matter?
  • Should the tests interleave previous topics within the tests? Or should tests be one topic but interleaved with others?
  • How do we convince teachers that are used to teaching in a linear way that this might have an impact and it’s worth trying?
  • If all teachers followed some of our ideas would it become boring and monotonous for students? Does it matter?
  • Should we share this with other teachers?
  • If we gradually increase the retention interval should we then gradually decrease it again nearer the exam?
  • Do we still need the traditional ‘revision’ period at the end of year 11?
  • Does the order of the content matter? Other than if it relies on prior knowledge should we teach ‘difficult’ concepts first, middle or last?
  • Should we do ‘fun’ topics at the start, middle or end? Does it matter in terms of learning?

However we did discuss how we could:

  • Tell the students what we’re doing; give them overviews of the research & techniques so they understand
  • Plan as much as possible in advance including quiz questions
  • Use multiple choice quizzing to reduce marking
  • Use quizzing for homeworks & possible software that marks it automatically

Once the specifications are approved I will start to consider what needs to be learnt and start the huge jigsaw puzzle of putting it into a format that tries to optimise these principles.

If you have any answers or suggested research to answer any of the questions then it would be great to hear from you.


Resources & research considered

Spacing Effects in Learning : A Temporal Ridgeline of Optimal Retention – Nicholas J. Cepeda,Edward Vul,Doug Rohrer, John T. Wixted, and Harold Pashler

Click to access Cepeda_Vul_Rohrer_Wixted_Pashler.pdf

Optimizing Distributed Practice: Theoretical Analysis and Practical Implications
– Nicholas J. Cepeda,Noriko Coburn,Doug Rohrer,John T. Wixted,Michael C. Mozer,and Harold Pashler

Click to access Cepeda_etal_EP2009.pdf

Peter C., Henry L. Roediger, and Mark A. McDaniel. 2014. Make It Stick. Harvard University Press.

Carvalho PF and Goldstone RL (2015) What you learn is more than what you see: what can sequencing effects tell us about inductive category learning?


A great teaching idea…until everyone does it?


I discussed this with a colleague today. Something was working really well with students and he joked that I shouldn’t do it with my students as they might get fed up with it.

This got me thinking. If we all use the same resources, the same techniques, across the school, do students get fed up or bored with these? Does it matter?

I’ve previously done lots of training on the sorts of teaching techniques that are supposed to be used across the school: TEEP, kagan,and a long time ago, thinking hats.*

Regardless of any questions about the research (or lack of research) on the effectiveness of these systems, do these sorts of whole school systems create a predictable, narrow, monotonous experience for students? Or does it provide a clear, known framework for students to build all their learning around that makes it easy for teachers to plan around?

If the impact is negative for the students, for which I’m not sure, should we bother sharing resources or teachniques with colleagues that we don’t actually want them to use as it may impact our subject and the efficacy of the technique?

Is variety the key to learning or do universal set structures have more benefits?
* Just because I’ve done training on these does not mean I’m advocating them. I’m listing the training I’ve had in my career as examples.

The new GCSE & planning for learning; a practical guide


I blogged here last week about I how I felt that many schools and teachers have missed a huge opportunity to really think about learning and memory when planning their new GCSE curriculum.

This blog is giving some suggestions of what I will be considering when planning mine. I have taken all of these ideas from reading other people’s blogs/tweets and reading a few books/journal articles that mainly link to memory.


One common way of teaching a curriculum is to work your way through each part, following it bit by bit in the order it has been written in the specification. Topics are taught as separate units. You start and finish the whole topic in a block of time. Little thought is given to learning but usually to practicalities e.g so text books can be shared or one set of equipment not double booked.

With interleaving you teach different topics interleaved with each other. It seems an odd thing to do and may seem confusing to you and the students but Brown et say:


Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning by Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III and Mark A. McDaniel.

Step 1 Take your GCSE specification (once approved) and spend time reading through it.

Step 2 Draw a visual representation of the time you have for the whole course.

Step 3 Colour code/highlight each topic in one colour

Step 4 Create several copies of each topic (you will need these for repetition, perhaps 5+)


Spacing is the repetition of content over a long period of time. You need to plan to cover and recover content, you don’t leave it to the last weeks before the exam in the form of ‘revision’. Spacing is revision throughout the course.

However research doesn’t say how big the gap between each coverage should be but suggests it should gradually get bigger.

For example if we consider a two year GCSE and the time available it might look like this:

Content A


You’re probably looking at this and thinking that it is impossible as you don’t have enough time to do this with all content. I’ll explain how you might approach it further on.

Step 5  Answer these questions:

  • What are the basics which build a foundation for other content?
  • Which concepts and information are repeated but applied differently?
  • Where can skills be applied to different content?

Step 6 Place content into time chart ensuring that each topic is repeated with increasing space but that the basics are covered before they need to be applied further on. It’s a huge jigsaw puzzle. Keep these principles in mind. Move things around. Ask others. Come back to it. It’s not going to be done in 10 minutes. This is planning for two years curriculum.


For many testing is summative. However this is not its only use and it’s probably the least useful way of using testing at GCSE. I use it for two reasons: to find out what they do/don’t know and crucially it is learning in itself. Pressurising your memory to recall previously covered information helps to embed it in your long term memory.

However this testing needs to be low stakes; there aren’t negative consequences of not doing well.

This can be done in many ways which do not require lots of marking:

  • Quick 1-5 recap – in the first 5 mins of the lesson do a quick recap of what was learnt last lesson. Peer/self Mark.
  • Multiple choice quizzes. Paper or on online. Quick to administer and mark.
  • Topic tests that cover everything from the start of the course

This last point is important. Many teachers only test on the last topic covered. However it should cover everything or parts of the learning since the start of the course. This is where you can use spacing without having to spend time going over content in class. Put it into the test. The model above might then look like this:


Step 7 Decide which repetitions of content will be in the form of tests. Add tests. They need to be frequent. Include homeworks.

These are the first steps for my curriculum planning. I also want to include other principles however these 3 areas form the main structure of the course. I will be blogging on how I’m going to use this for the new GCSE religious studies.


For a more detailed version of all of this including research refs: http://bjorklab.psych.ucla.edu/research.html#spacing

Useful videos: http://gocognitive.net/interviews/benefits-interleaving-practice

Why I let my students cheat in tests


I believe that frequent testing is an important part of student learning. I think that it has a multitude of benefits. However I don’t test summatively. In my opinion, the only summative test secondary students do is their GCSE exam.

This short post is about one benefit that I believe has an impact on students learning and it comes from allowing them to cheat.



This is one of my walls. It is covered with quotes from Christianity & Islam that can be applied in many ways in the current GCSE RS.

I have taught the quotes and we refer to them frequently. However, when students do a test in the classroom I don’t take them down or cover them up. I leave them there. They think I don’t see but I often catch them looking round to get a quote to link in with their point.

I believe that by allowing them to do this it is helping them in the long term because:

  • They are so used to using these quotes in their work it becomes a habit
  • It will help them to visualise them when not in the classroom
  • By using them they can see what their work looks like with the quotes in it and how much this improves the quality of it
  • Constant exposure to the quotes improves long term memorisation

Current year 11 have had tests elsewhere and I have some evidence of them using these in their work but I think that my year 10 in particular have realised they’re always there and use them more frequently in their work.

I’m not going to tell them I know what they’re doing when they turn to glance at the wall. I’m going to see how they do in their year 10 mocks that they sit in the hall and see how much of it has transferred and has stuck in their long term memory.

The New GCSEs, learning and a huge missed opportunity 


For once I’m quite laid back about something. Whilst it’s not ideal situation to not have specifications approved for teaching in September, I can’t help thinking that whinging about it is a wasted effort and it is possible to spend that effort doing preparation work using the DfE content or even the draft specs.

Some people are indeed spending time planning and with one approved spec many have plumped for that board just because it has been approved.

However, within the online community and colleagues I have spoken to, very few are taking this opportunity to really think about learning and how they might design the course to incorporate research on memory and learning. This is a great  time to start afresh and think differently about schemes of learning and topic organisation.

So if people aren’t planning for learning, what are they planning for?

I’ve heard the following reasons at least once:

  • ‘We’re doing the interesting bits first to get their attention’
  • ‘We haven’t got time to plan anything other than teaching it all in order’
  • ‘We’re planning it so they enjoy it’
  • ‘We’re planning it so it’s easy for non-specialists’
  • ‘We don’t have time for anything other than teaching it once’ 
  • ‘There’s too much content we just need to rush through it all’

Whilst I completely understand these rationales, some I completely disagree with but others I don’t think are incompatible with a learning led curriculum. 

It also concerns me that some of these teachers don’t see that the benefits of looking at learning is THE most important aspect of their teaching. 

Does it matter if the kids enjoyed themselves and it was easier to plan, if they don’t actually learn what they need to?
Why are people desperately looking at how children can ‘revise’ in these last weeks before exams instead of focussing on how they might have learnt it effectively in the first place?

Now is the time to start afresh and design our curriculum to support effective long term learning and memory yet how many schools have supported staff in doing this? How many have had a whole school approach to curriculum design? How many T&L leads have been supporting staff on this since September? 

Will this be another missed opportunity where people blame the Government for everything going wrong or use research to try to embed research and the best techniques we currently know enhance learning?

Why monitoring is a good thing & why many schools get it wrong


My school has developed a system of monitoring which is the best I’ve ever experienced or seen in a school. It’s not perfect  but is the most efficient and effective model I’ve seen. As a leader, whilst it takes time, it is a part of my job I enjoy because it means I’m engaging with my department’s core work; the teaching and learning of our students

Why monitoring is a good thing

In most jobs there is a minimum expectation of staff; the things they’re employed to do that contribute to them fulfilling their role. Monitoring is the process of checking these are being done.

Whilst many people do this badly, there are some benefits to doing it well:

  • It values people’s work
  • It gives an opportunity to discuss ideas
  • It ensures the leader is engaging with colleagues
  • It promotes consistency within departments and across the school
  • It gives an overall picture of teaching and learning across the school without the need for grades
  • It’s relatively quick, efficient and fair


If you’ve read thus far and thought ‘this is a load of rubbish’, there’s a good chance that you’ve experienced one or more of the following:

Why many schools get it wrong

They do it for the wrong reasons

Getting any teacher to do something for Ofsted is wrong. Doing it for the Governors is wrong.

It takes too long or time isn’t given to staff to complete it

If it’s important then staff will be given time to do it. Consider that whole staff meeting where staff were talked at for an hour about something that could have fitted into an email. Just think what a leader could have done to work with colleagues in this time.

It’s inconsistent. 

“My head of department doesn’t do that”

“I hope I get Mr X watching my lesson, he’s nice”

Phrases that undermine an effective system.

It’s done by the ‘wrong’ person

The best model is the for the teacher and their direct line manager to engage in this. SLT should be monitoring the monitoring not doing the monitoring (unless they’re the line manager).

Staff complete paperwork/ do things to meet the system instead of the system being used to analyse what is being done anyway

If staff are spending hours preparing for monitoring rather than preparing for teaching there’s something seriously wrong with your system.

It allocates grades

Why? Why do people grade their teachers? One answer, “for a spreadsheet to ‘show’ Ofsted”. Utter nonsense.

It’s too subjective 

When discussing the ‘quality’ of something, personal opinion will always come in. An effective system will remove that as much as possible. ‘Has it been done or not?’ makes things more objective.

The wrong things are looked at

Is there any point looking at planning if what is being delivered bears no resemblance? Is it worth observing someone for 20 minutes with a class they see once and fortnight?

They’re irregular/infrequent

Put them on a calendar and stick to them. SLT monitoring should be checking this. A teacher should know when it is happening; no ‘gotcha’ moments.

The policies are inefficient, over complicated and unreasonable 

This is where most of you that think monitoring is not a good thing will probably have the issue.

  • Your marking policy is unworkable.
  • You teach RE and teach 600 students.
  •  Your feedback requires you to write more than the student did in the first place.
  • You’re required to enter data onto a spreadsheet twice a half term.
  • You have to hand in your planning a week in advance (when you won’t even know if the students will have covered the previous work).
  • You are observed and have to prove that students have made progress in 20 minutes.
  • Every teacher is expected to everything the same way even though their subject is completely different

These are why monitoring isn’t valued in by many teachers. Policies written by people who’ve forgotten what it’s really like to teach 18 classes or never have done.


Monitoring is really important in a school. If done well it contributes to teacher development, if done badly, it’s a reason why many teachers leave a school and for some, leave the profession.

The language of teaching


I was talking to @RoyWatsonDavis about this yesterday but have also been pondering what makes a great teacher.

One key thing that can make a significant difference is the language a teacher uses.

A skilled teacher may not even realise it but what they say and how they say it, is core to students understanding what they are learning.

A great teacher uses language, terminology and phrases that they know can help students access learning at all levels and vary these according to who they have in front of them.

These teachers also know when a new phrase or way of explaining is needed. They don’t just keep repeating but instantly recognise a student is stuck and rephrases the same information in a different way.

They know when to speak and when saying nothing is best.

The words a teacher uses have the power to motivate and the power the demotivate. It is such an important aspect of teaching it is well worth analysing teacher speech when considering teacher effectiveness. If you ask students what makes a great teacher they can often recognise that a teacher ‘explains it well’. What they means is, they know what words to choose and in which order to use them in order to ensure they understand.

Where it goes wrong, teacher language can be patronising, too complex/simple , poorly phrased, too quick/slow or mono-toned; it’s almost an art.
The question that arises from this is:

Can you teach someone the art of successful teacher language?