The Art of teacher exposition 

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How would you explain these to a student?

http://www.storyofmathematics.com/greek_pythagoras.html
Recently I’ve been considering what makes effective teaching and I think this is often overlooked as an important aspect of teaching. How a teacher describes, explains, especially abstract concepts is the key to student understanding. A teacher may have a perfectly behaved group, with great attitudes and loads of resources but if the teacher can’t transfer what they know and understand to the students then ultimately their learning will suffer.

I once observed a highly qualified, highly intelligent trainee with a PhD try to teach year 10. The students didn’t have a clue what he was talking about. He didn’t have a clue why they didn’t understand what he was saying. The gap between knowing something and being able to share that with someone who may be years younger and have less of a passion towards it than him was huge.

This is where I disagree with the Government about teacher qualifications. The reality is that it doesn’t matter about the level of teacher subject knowledge if they can’t transfer that effectively they won’t succeed as a teacher.

There are some pedagogies where teacher exposition has been marginalised in favour of students ‘finding out for themselves’. Chalk and talk has been frowned upon and undiscerning SLTs have put time limits on use of teacher talk. I completely disagree with this. The teacher is the expert. They know a lot about their subject. They’re employed because of it. Telling teachers that they shouldn’t talk is seriously limiting. Teachers should decide themselves, with a class in mind what is appropriate as the most efficient, effective way for students to learn.

What are the features of great exposition?

  • Start by using language that a student understands and gradually include new keywords that stretch understanding but have been used in a clear context
  • Use of pictures, diagrams, charts where possible
  • Use of analogy or other literary devices that help students link the concrete to abstract
  • Pace – not a set pace but a pace that the class sets. This is a great skill. A teacher can only decide pace based on student response, body language and the questions they ask. A great teacher can change the pace instantly.
  • It encourages students to ask more and want to learn more. There may be lots of questions but they show understanding and an attempt to extend their own thinking.
  • The tone, pitch, volume of voice is audible but also used with variation to help with emphasis or character where appropriate. Teacher enthusiasm will probably be shown via their voice.
  • Students are silent when the teacher explains. Discussion and questions can come after or at teacher decided points.
  • Use of repetition. Anything new should be repeated in different ways throughout the lesson
  • Instructions are specific & clear. Not ‘tidy away’ but ‘put the pencils int he pots, pick the rubbish off of the floor and put your books in the box’.
  • Pitched at the right level for the class. This is the toughest and probably the most important. There is no point teaching Pythagoras’s triangle theorem if they don’t understand square numbers, addition etc There is no point in using university level language unless they have basic terminology nailed. This isn’t the same as having high expectations, it’s about enabling students to access high level content appropriately.

It’s easy to know when teacher exposition isn’t clear enough through the following (although these are not just attributed to unclear exposition):

  • Body language – slumping, looking around the room, fiddling etc
  • Student comments such as ‘I don’t get it’, ‘I don’t understand what I have to do’ ‘I can’t do X’
  • Student questions ask the thing that you thought you’d just explained
  • Student work is incorrect
  • Students don’t complete the work (because they can’t)

How to improve exposition

Practise explaining as part of planning.

Record yourself explaining something. Listen back. Was it clear? Why?

Watch someone teach that is good at exposition. Listen to examples of the above list of features.

Write yourself a mini-script or list of points you will follow when explaining so you get the correct order etc

Practise explaining with a colleague/friend/relative  who doesn’t know anything about the topic

Improving schools; its all about the teaching.

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Over my years as teacher and leader I have seen some formidable initiatives aimed at raising achievement, including: learning to learn lessons, motivational speakers for students, gifted and talented programs, revision sessions, elaborate marking policies, teacher tips, Mocksteds…..

I’ve realised (yes it’s taken a while), none of these will have the overall significant impact of one thing; lessons where kids learn.

Teaching and learning leads/teams around the country are focussing on all these exciting things when they only need to focus on lessons, the teaching that happens and whether that leads to learning. If behaviour is sorted,  nothing else is needed.

So why don’t they? Because it’s tough. Teachers have made classrooms their own personal work area. We are a fairly autonomous profession with many teachers having never stepped into a colleague’s room except to borrow a board pen or to give a note to another teacher. If you’ve been teaching for 25 years, the only classroom you may know is your own. If anyone comes to your class it’s probably only been to judge you or to tell off a naughty kid.

Talking about learning has almost become taboo. Instead of being the first questions asked of a teacher, the peripherals have become the focus.

It only needs two questions: ‘Did they all learn what you wanted them to learn? How do/will you know?’ Instead of ‘When were their books last marked?’ Or ‘Why didn’t you do the school’s 5 minute starter activity?’.

Learning is the hot potato.

One reason is because it requires people to go into other people’s classrooms. As said above, this is contentious. Past history of judgemental observations and union guidelines on restricting the hours have made it almost untouchable. It’s the most important thing yet has become the least well used.

Everything has also been muddied by programmes & systems that claim to be a silver bullet: TEEP, thinking hats, VAK, 3 part lessons, showing progress in 20 minutes…..the list goes on. These take the focus away from the difficult discussions about learning with teachers  and make life easier for leaders to say ‘you’ve not followed X way of teaching’ or you didn’t do ‘Y’.

Another reason why it’s easy to avoid talking about learning is that we can’t see it. In my career we’ve gone from observations which claimed to ‘see’ if children were learning ,  book scrutinies that can show this mysterious thing of progression  and using data as a proxy for learning. None of these are good enough but can we agree on what might show learning? If not, we will always fudge our way around learning.

Finally, I fear that many teachers don’t really know much about learning and what research suggests works in the classroom. I don’t remember it on my PGCE and my NQT did nothing on it last year. Leaders and teachers need to be clear from the start what may/may not help. Some of the examples above have clearly been peddled without secure research behind them yet schools and leaders have grabbed on to them as their solution to raising achievement.

So if you’re a leader think carefully about what you do and spend your efforts on:

  • How do your plans link directly to learning and what happens in the classroom?
  • How will you start the discussions with teachers on the two most important questions?
  • Is your worked linked with research? How can it support it?
  • How will you create a culture where more than one adult in a classroom isn’t seen as a negative?
  • How will you support staff to keep learning as the core focus?
  • How do you use data to unpick the state of learning instead of making sweeping statements about groups?

and if you’re part of a formal organisation that is supporting developing leaders, how will you ensure that participants keep learning as their focus?

‘Please complete this!’

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‘Finish this work’…..’Underline your title’……’Please check your spellings’

How many times have you written these in a student’s book?

How many times did they actually do as you asked?

Have you ever asked yourself why?

Maybe they didn’t have the time to do it. Maybe they don’t care about the work. Maybe they don’t know how to finish it. Maybe it was done so long ago they don’t remember what to do.

Do yourself a favour, stop writing this stuff unless you’ve reflected on why they haven’t done it and have a plan on when/how they will do it. 

Otherwise you’re just talking to yourself. Life’s too short.

Are you brave enough to ditch data? The battle of Data, Ofsted and Research 

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There are still many leaders in schools that regularly reference Ofsted to justify what they do. However, many brave leaders have the experience and confidence to do things because they believe they are what is best for students and their learning. Examples are stopping lesson observation grading, stopping the expectation of showing progress in 20 minutes during a lesson and ceasing excessive marking strategies. Many of these have been debunked or lack support from research.

However, there is one practice that very few leaders will drop, for which the research is ignored; data.

In this blog the data I will be referring to is grades, levels, marks and percentages; classroom level data.

How many leaders would be brave enough to submit a blank spreadsheet to Ofsted or as a minimum keystage 2 data and key stage 4 outcomes?

a blank spreadsheet

I tell my students that only one grade really matters, the one on their results sheet in August. The stuff in between isn’t summative, it’s formative. So why do teachers have to regularly submit data to a spreadsheet throughout each key stage? This data has to come from somewhere, so teachers create systems to generate the data that is required.

What does the research say about classroom level data?
It’s simple, we don’t need it and generally has a negative impact on learning.

  • It reduces motivation
  • Students focus on the grade/level/number/percentage not how to improve
  • It is usually generated for external sources not for learning itself

This webinar by Dylan Wiliam is an excellent watch. Whilst it focuses on feedback it clearly shows the research indicates that ‘strong feedback’ is more effective for learning than giving grades.

This slide in particular shows how weak feedback (just giving results) compares to strong feedback.

However many leaders would say that few people give just a grade. They give written feedback and/or targets to improve. However the same research shows that the sheer existence of the grade/number on the paper reduces impact compared to no grade/number, just feedback & target action.

Research shows we need to ditch grades/levels so why is it so hard for leaders to follow?

Key stage 3 – A missed opportunity 

Life without levels was the ideal opportunity to follow the research on this. Sadly, whatever teachers or leaders came up with still ‘needed’ to go on a spreadsheet. Good intentions either turned into the Emperor’s new clothes or just dropping the new GCSE grades 1-9 into key stage 3. A lovely spreadsheet full of data is perfect to show that students in the school are progressing.

Key stage 4 – ‘the data is needed’ and another missed opportunity 

Too many reasons why data is needed at key stage 4 link to external factors. Year 11 need a grade for their key stage 5 applications, parents want to know how they’re getting on (so they might need to pay for a tutor) and the usual pressure that leaders feel from an immanent Ofsted inspector demanding a spreadsheet to prove x or y is true.

Key stage 4 has also recently had the same great opportunity as key stage 3. The new GCSEs have meant we don’t have any grade boundaries. This is the ideal to work with students on the quality of their work not marks/grades. Yet around the country teachers are being told they must create grade boundaries. This of course is utter nonsense as explained in this blog.

Possible solutions

Last year, I didn’t use any numbers or grades with my year 10. Their work was always marked using simple criteria based on  exam requirements.


After the first test they asked for a mark. I explained that they wouldn’t be getting one. From then on, they knew when they got work back it was about understanding what they’d done right/wrong, not about a number.

However I was still required to enter a grade to a spreadsheet. This meant running a dual system. Whilst I didn’t give students any marks, I still recorded marks. I teach two classes, totalling 50. This almost doubled my workload and became unsustainable the more they learnt. So in their year 10 ‘mock exam’ they got marks and a grade, alongside their orange sticker. I am pleased that as they had formed a habit of what to do with feedback they still did it in the same way, but as expected discussion about marks and grades began.

Without using marks/grades, both me and the students could easily tell you what their strengths and weakness were. They also all knew how to improve their work. However, sadly for some, that isn’t enough.  Data, spreadsheets and fear rule. It will take a strong leader to ditch spreadsheets that require this kind of data. However, if the structures and systems are put in place, I’m convinced that he who dares will win. Following research, in this case, will make a big difference.

Further reading

From Degrading to De-Grading

http://www.dylanwiliamcenter.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/The-Secret-of-Effective-Feedback.pdf