Teaching automatons? Looking at the what and why instead of the how


If you put some teachers in a room to discuss what they think is good teaching they will probably be referencing one of two things: their ITE Course (school direct, PGCE etc) or what the school/s they’ve taught in have told them is how they’re going to do it. They will discuss the processes they’re used to rather than the core fundamentals of teaching & learning. 

For example, a teacher might say “marking student books is essential” instead of “giving feedback” or “sharing lesson objectives” instead of “putting learning into context for students”. The ‘how’ has overtaken the ‘what & why’.

My concern with this is that there will be some teachers who have only experienced the ‘how’ and have never considered or had to consider the ‘what and why’.

This has probably manifested it self most recently in the life without levels situation. Suddenly teachers have gone from a set process of levelling work and were asked to ditch it for any other model they choose. Suddenly, teachers were asked to consider the what and why to create their own how, and they struggled.

I don’t have a good memory but I think it has been a rare occasion in my teacher training and consequent career where the what and why are discussed or referenced before the how. If schools continue to tell teachers how they want things done without any evidential basis, we are creating teachers who may be great at doing what they’re told but lack the independent, critical  thinking skills to develop strategies from the theory upwards. 

Maybe some leaders don’t know themselves and are just repeating their own experiences (in my experience this is very common and incredibly damaging) or maybe some don’t want teachers to question what they’re doing. My concern is that there are trainees and teachers that believe what they’ve been told to do is ‘teaching’ and that what they know is the ‘right’ way without having considered alternatives and the reasoning behind them. It’s all they know. They’ve never questioned it. They repeat it to others and believe that it is ‘right’.

So, without the why are we teaching automatons or creative, informed practitioners? 

Guest post: My approach in using cognitive psychology in teaching


My approach in using cognitive psychology in teaching

Raejohn Shiplee

Right before I start I need to let you know this is a work in progress. I have tried to read up about cognitive psychology as I want to use research to guide me in my decisions for my teaching, ultimately to improve my student’s perceptions of learning and their grades.

I am by no means an expert; in fact I would say I’m a novice. These are my interpretations on the conversations I have had and the books/blogs/research papers I have read and put into practice.

Here is a quick overview of what I am trying at the moment.


I always find that examples help me understand what is going on so I will attempt to explain through a Year 8 topic – Limestone chemistry.

What do you know about (WDYKA)

My first attempt at this was to do a pre-check – which was questions linked to each CREF.

My reasons for doing a pre check were (not in any particular order):

1. To provide a baseline assessment to measure progress. (BIG mistake- it’s not for me it’s for my students).
2. To show my students what types of questions will be asked during this topic.
3. To get students to write their answers down so I could check for misconceptions.*
4. For students to see what they knew and didn’t know. ((MAIN REASON)).

This provided problematic for a few reasons:

1. Time to construct enough quality questions which didn’t repeat in other checks later on.
2. Time to mark and give colour coded feedback (more about this later).
3. Time taken out of the lesson (usually 30 mins).
4. Some students became switched off as it was ‘not another test Sir’.
5. Some students couldn’t see the point of them because ‘Why am I being tested on something I don’t know yet’.
6. Many students felt threatened by them, either as they felt they were being found out or that they felt they should already know it. I suppose in hindsight I would identify these students as having fixed mindsets (both at opposite points of the scale so called low achievers and high achievers).

* Conceptual growth and conceptual change are two areas I need to read more into.

I have now changed the pre check to a WDYKA to mitigate the issues but retain the elements of why do a pre check. This is an A4 sheet which has some key questions, linked to a CREF, which I want to check. It usually takes about 10 to 15 minutes of a lesson and about 10 mins to mark a class set.

How to:

* I ask them to write down what they think they know about each question.

* I don’t want them to discuss it.

* I don’t want them to look at other students answers.


These are then checked and anything correct is highlighted in green. This is the only feedback given.

During Instruction

This is the part where I teach through the use of criteria references. First a bit about CREFs.

Criteria references (CREFS)




I have designed a set of questions called criteria references that ALL students must achieve mastery on. These criteria references are based upon the AQA GCSE chemistry specification (old spec) as well as referenced against the PiXL group (partners in excellence) personalised learning charts (PLC) at KS3.

I have taken many attempts to get them right, but I am still modifying. My first attempts could have up to 25 CREFs to cater for all students to access the topic. Through delivering the topic I have found this unworkable as the pre and post checks are too long and the question quality was poor.

I have tried to incorporate the ideas of desirable difficulties (Bjork 1994) and concept thresholds (Meyer and Land (2003), but must also acknowledge the knowledge they must know for the syllabus.

All students are given a paper matrix with the criteria. It allows students to see what is expected of them and allows those who want move ahead to do so. This is a good characteristic of a student with a great attitude to learning.


I have tried to base the CREFs around a 1 hour lesson; this is to help me in structuring the topic as well as ordering requisitions for any experiments (which have to be in a week before). I will only proceed to the next lesson if the majority of the class show understanding. If I need more time (or less) then I will do so. In effect I am slowing down (or speeding it up) the learning; it is a different way of looking at pace in a lesson.

During instruction I will give my students a particular question related to a CREF. This is self marked and corrections made if needed. In their book margins the CREF is written and if they wish they can self RAG rate. Their book is therefore referenced for future use.

I know that these questions are only checking their working/short term memory but I want them to:

a. show their understanding of the CREF
b. have a go. I don’t care if they are wrong, and I tell them this, providing they make corrections
c. make corrections and to re-encode if necessary
d. have a set of detailed notes.

Throughout the instruction they are given verbal feedback as well as a formative feedback task (I have to follow my schools guidelines on marking).


This sheet is given to them after their first attempt so they can improve. I have provided them with suggested ideas for marking points as I believe if they knew it the first time they would have provided the answer there and then, it is just that they need some scaffolding to help them along the way. It particular helps those which have yet to gain the necessary skills to interrogate a resource as it helps to focus on the key ideas.

Interleaved homework

This is something I’m working on small scale with my current Y11s. Although not strictly interleaving the concept is to give students two or three exam style questions.

I am thinking:

Q1: Old topic which has been covered over 3 months ago.

Q2: Recent topic 1-3 months ago (usually the last topic covered)

Q3: Current topic.

The homework must be quick (10 -15 mins) and must be past paper questions or in the style they will get at GCSE. This is a bit tricky at the moment as the style of questions is unclear at the moment as is what a grade 1 or grade 9 question will look like.

The homework setting and deadlines must also be the same week in week out.

More on this another time…

Multi-choice questions.


This is set as homework in readiness for their pre-check. I have looked at lot at how to construct MCQ and I have to agree it takes a lot longer to construct than say a set of short answer questions. It is all about the quality of the answers.

One avenue I am exploring is the use of the WDYKA as the students will come up with misconceptions. The only problem I see is that since the misconceptions need to be as close to concept threshold as possible, I don’t think the students will come up with a sufficiently good alternative answer. I will look though as you never know.

The MCQ are designed to be a quick to answer and mark. The answers are discussed in class; I’m trying to include some meta-cognition (think about the thinking) and self evaluation here. Sometimes I will show how I answer the question, usually breaking the question down into what the command word is and what it means, and then what knowledge do you have about the question. It is a kind of answer anticipation. Other times I invite students to give

and then justify their answers; this can provide discussions and chances to air their misconceptions and to re-encode.

I haven’t gone down the one answer for each question either. I have added the instruction:

“The following multi-choice questions may have one or multiple (more than one) answers”.

In this question there are two answers. (A and D).


Most (but not all) research suggests MCQ (MC) are just as good as short answer (SA) questions, ‘Evidence suggests little or no advantage of answering SA questions over MC questions in 3 experiments’.(Smith & Karpicke (2013), but the key reason for doing so was to reduce my marking.

More on this another time…



Every single CREF has a question. It is clearly signposted on the question paper.

These are marked before the next lesson, colour coding the CREF as red, amber or green as well as the piece of information in the answer.


The lesson breaks down like this:

* A new matrix is given. This shows extra columns.


* Students colour code the homework (MCQ) and pre check columns.

* Students reflect by choosing three CREF strengths I can… & 3 CREF developmental areas I need to …. They can decide what CREFs they wish based on these two checks.

* Students are then given a set of reflection questions and they identify the three I need to … CREFs.


* I have already collated the information in an excel sheet so I can see which areas the class haven’t done very well in. I show them the three areas as a class we haven’t answered well in and provide new instruction, either as a lecture style or the same questions which I talk through and annotate.

* Students then answer these three questions (Some students actually answer more than three of the reflection questions based on the pre check feedback). I show them the class RAG rating results so they can speak to students for help on a particular question. I also encourage the use

* Reflection questions are marked and if needed corrected for the next lesson.

Post check

This is usually given the next lesson, BUT looking at the research I think I will delay this by a few weeks. This is to utilise the spacing effect.

The format is exactly the same as the pre check, each CREF has a question.

Again this will be RAG rated and then the students can add the colour coding to their matrix.

Finally any student wishing to retake their post check can. They have a two week window to do so. The only caveat is that it must be done in school (under supervision) and in their own time (break, dinner after school). This is to foster a growth mindset. ‘Student endorsement of mastery goals and engagement in effort – makes them more likely to change and then retain correct knowledge’. (Taylor, Kowalski and Bennett 2010)


A final check I could add in is the same sheet I gave at the start of the topic and call it what do you now know about … Limestone chemistry (this is something I have yet to try in this approach).

Final thoughts

I don’t give them a grade. I don’t judge them, I only say if its amber or red ‘What are you going to do about it’? I want them to take responsibility for their learning!

I provide help during the lessons and make myself available at breaks, dinner before or after school and they have my email if they wish to contact me. If they are willing to give up their time to help with their education I am more than happy to help. I want to show if they are prepared to make the effort I will be there for them.

I am trying to give as many opportunities for my students to test themselves in a low stakes setting. I want to improve their storage and retrieval strength, and become more confident/prepared and less stressed when it comes to summative (read GCSE exams) tests.

I also want them to see how a system/habit can help them to review work more efficiently and enable them to focus on areas they need to improve on. There is still a lot of work to be done on showing students how to revise, but I am already working on this.

This approach is by no means perfect; I will constantly tinker with the ideas, particularly with the spacing effect in mind. All I can say is that most students like the structure this approach provides as it shows them what they do know and what they don’t know.

Learning; it isn’t about fun.


Teachers often ask ‘how can I get students to learn X?’. The responses, instead of focussing on what research supports learning, often include making it fun, as though fun in itself is enough to make a learner learn.

Maybe we’re conflating engagement and fun here but it’s not enough (previous blog on why I don’t bother). Planning a lesson for engagement isn’t enough to ensure students learn. Many students are engaged but without planning for long term memory their ability to recall and apply knowledge will be limited.

It’s so simple but so many teachers have no idea either because it wasn’t on their ITE programme or their T&L lead hasn’t engaged staff with research on learning.

So instead of planning a fun lesson, I will recommend strategies that have some evidence of being effective for memory and long term application e.g a Lietner box or equivalent app.

The problem is, they generally aren’t based on a ‘one off’ lesson which is where most teachers become uninterested. They want instant solutions, a couple of weeks before exams. They call it ‘revision’ (it isn’t revision if they don’t know it!) It’s generally too late.

Whose job is it to train/inform/support teachers in learning and implementing  this? Or is it all just another big red herring to distract teachers?

The anatomy of a struggling school


What is it that means one school struggles to do well for students and another doesn’t? Is it possible to diagnose* the core issues in struggling schools so they can be addressed?


I’ve blogged before on this; Why don’t schools nail bad behaviour?

Poor behaviour means that teachers and leaders are spending more time on dealing with poor behaviour and the following paperwork than focussing on learning. The problem with poor behaviour in classrooms is that one student has the potential to impact the learning of 30 others. Multiply this across classes and poor behaviour can seriously impact the whole school.

2.Ineffective/inefficient leadership 

At all levels. The reason for this may be varied. Leaders may be spending their time dealing with behaviour, as above, or things that are peripheral to making a significant difference to students. This may include paperwork, data collections, sitting in meetings that could have been an email, doing things that justify rather than things that make a difference; using their time in efficiently.

In some cases a leader may have been over promoted or are incapable of meeting their contracted duties.

3.Doing the wrong things, in the wrong way, at the wrong time

Or any of those in combination with something ‘right’. For example there may be an attempt to deal with poor behaviour but it might be done in the wrong way and/or at the wrong time of year. 

Struggling schools have a filing cabinet full of ideas that were never followed through because one of these factors was ‘wrong’.

4.Lack of strategic planning 

To move a school forwards the leaders need to understand what the issues are with the school AND have the ability to consider possible strategies to improve them, thinking carefully about the possible pros and cons of a possible course of action.

Struggling schools may know what is wrong on the surface, poor results, poor behaviour, low literacy, but don’t have the knowledge or skills in order to work on these effectively. Anything that is attempted usually doesn’t work because the strategic planning hasn’t happen or doesn’t involve those that matter. Rapid improvement plans are written but are done because the school is struggling not because there is value in working on the areas that might make a difference.

The failed strategies & ‘Rapid improvement plans’  filing cabinet fills even more.


If all staff are not following the same procedures, supporting the same values & principles, and not supportive of the school’s ethos, inconsistency will creep in.

If one member of staff ignores the untucked shirt or doesn’t feedback to students or fails to do break duty, the inconsistency can become corrosive. Children aren’t stupid. They smell inconsistency from a mile and it is what most of them rely on. They go from lesson to lesson ducking and diving inconsistent teachers. It is a great skill they develop and it is one of the most significant factors in the school’s failure or success. 

It doesn’t mean teachers are all robots. We can all value the principle of feedback but do it differently. But if we agree as a school it is part of our teacher expectations we must all do it.  Failure to be consistent makes it unfair and even more challenging for those staff that do follow expectations. In some cases the arguing with students that ‘Mrs X doesn’t make us do that’ or ‘Mr Y lets us do this’ is enough for a teacher to give up.

Finally, if this becomes widespread, leaders stop trusting staff. Once that occurs, there’s almost no going back.

Whilst this blog may come across as negative I believe that if struggling schools take a look at how these things manifest themselves in their own context, one or more will exist and will undermine any good willed, late nights, hard working to improve the school.

I’ll blog another time on what might be the anatomy of a successful school.

*Apologies for the anatomical references

Your ‘year 9’ and my ‘year 9’ are two different cases – Does ‘one size fits all’ work in schools?


I’ve taught in several difference school contexts. All state schools. All comprehensive. However the difference between the students is stark.

I remember in one school we had a really close knit faculty and a student in year 9 wrote a piece of work that was outstanding. We all read it and discussed what level we thought it was. We were over the moon to agree it was a level 6. This was really special in that context.

In another school it was my job to select high attaining students to teach them an AS in year 10/11. One year we somehow rushed through everything so we did A2 as well. Only two students, that had achieved the AS, didn’t want to do the A2.

I also saw one piece of work at key stage 3 that I believed was levelled ‘EP’ or exceptional performance.

Finally, in another school, classes were set and the majority of the top set were so able that I had to teach them A level level work. They wrote detailed, well referenced essays that would probably make a 1st year undergraduate degree pass.

The difference was stark.

So what is the reason for the difference? The most obvious difference was context. The first example was a school in what has been previously the largest council estate in Europe. The second was a coastal school in one of the less deprived coastal towns. The final example was a school that I would describe as working middle class, with some relatively wealthy families.

There are a couple of reasons why this has been brought to my mind. I’m writing a teacher resource and have asked people to review it. The results are fascinating. I asked the reviewers on a scale from ‘too easy’ to ‘too difficult’ what they thought about the resource. I know that if I’d used it in the first school the students would have really struggled to read and/or process the resource. The level of literacy of the resource would be far too high. I could probably have used it in school 2 & 3 but only with students with the literacy levels to deal with the text. It certainly wouldn’t work with all the students.

A couple of reviewers chose the ‘too easy’ option. I’ve never worked in a school where this would be the case.

This stark difference has really made me think about how schools are judged and ranked based on results and, as ever, ask some questions….

  • Will the new measures allow the first school a fairer ranking?
  • Are age related qualifications the best thing for children?
  • Should we teach at a level that relates to the students’ age or ability?
  • The new progress measures make it risky to do A level below key stage 5, are we restricting our students?
  • Should publishers create resources that cover all these literacy levels? Is it worth their while to publish separate editions?
  • Why was there such a big difference between the literacy of the majority of students in these schools?
  • Is it all about expectations? ( Our faculty in the first school achieved exceptional results yet the school’s overall results hovered about 30-40% A*-G.)
  • Is recruitment an issue? The first school had huge recruitment issues and the second school struggled.
  • Do some teachers struggle in some schools because they haven’t ‘adapted’ to the context?
  • Is it realistic to think that schools with very different contexts can effectively support each other?


My resolution is to publish the resource as it is, but it has got me thinking about the ‘one size fits all’ approach to schools.



Encouraging independent learning out of class


At my school we have an ‘attitude to learning’ scale which, for the top level, students are required to work independently.

Initially they’re not going to do this without guidance so I’ve been encouraging them in a couple of ways.

Firstly, for each topic, I aim to provide ‘optional’ homework which aims to extend the topic.

One of these is giving students a list of video clips and podcasts that link into the topic.

videos example

They can choose any videos they want. To help them I have added the clip length and created a * rating in terms of difficulty. This helps with differentiation for them. * is a simple, easy watch and ***** I have defined as A’ Level and University level.

The second thing I have done at key stage 3 is to include it in our assessment system, as ‘Independent Research’ (IR).


I’ve divided it up for them to develop their skills in IR. This ensures they don’t think that just bringing in a sheet printed from Wikipedia is sufficient.

To encourage them, I have also trialled posting their assessment task on Showmyhomework from day 1 of the topic. This gives them time to research and look up sources they might use.

When they complete this assessment I tell them to write IR in the margin next to the part that shows they have done IR (or use the purple highlighter to circle this work).

So far, about 1/3 of students have completed and used IR in their work. Interestingly a few students have brought in new information but failed to use it in their work. I need to ensure that they understand how to use it. I also need to do a couple of IR lessons in each year group to help them develop these skills.

I have some things that I need to consider further…

  • The whole point of an attitude to learning of 1 is that they are independent. I won’t always know when they’ve done this. Should I record it? So far I can only tell if they include it in their work or mention it in class discussion. I’ve tried to remind students that an attitude of 1 could include these things but then I’ve guided them so it’s not truly independent.  Should I try and find out if they’ve done something truly independent?
  • I definitely need to plan some decent research lessons however when you see students once a week that becomes tough. I need to get students to develop appropriate internet search skills and critical thinking
  • Referencing – I’ve been encouraging my key stage 3 students to always reference any sources they used. I really need to add this to the IR assessment box. Sadly, the GCSEs don’t need this but A level will; part of the lack of skills development at GCSE to A level.

If you use any strategies for independent learning it would be great to hear.