Progress is being able to do it again…and again


I sometimes think about sport when thinking about learning. In this case, basketball and shooting a hoop. It’s one part of the game but an essential one. Practising shooting is important as when you get the ball it’s a chance to score. Leaving it to chance would seem foolish. Being able to do it once in a while isn’t good enough otherwise we might all be in our national basketball team! It needs to have a high rate of success, through regular practice. A player needs to do the same thing, over and over. That’s what makes a great player.

This however isn’t what some people have thought or do think learning is about. Doing the same thing over and over in class has been frowned upon. I am saddened to say that in the past I have been a victim of ‘your lesson didn’t show progress because they didn’t learn something new’ but also, was made to tell others the same when I observed them. Something instinctively told me it was nonsense at the time but I didn’t have the evidence to the contrary nor was I likely to change things as it was what ‘Ofsted wanted’.

But now, not only do I think that it is essential to progress, it is part of what makes learning itself. There are many ways to make progress but in my opinion, one important way is that you can do something again and again and maintain a high standard, over a period of time

This is where some teaching goes wrong. The classic example is that in maths during a lesson, students are taught how to solve equations. They can all do it and do lots of practice during the lesson, the teacher then thinks ‘we’ve done equations’ and that’s it. They then wonder why in the future they can’t do it. Students need to practise the same type of equations, over and over, over a long period of staggered time (see research on spacing).

It seems sensible to think that if a student can repeat something then progress has been made. But how many times until you can confidently say that it is ‘learned’? Rawson and Dunlosky (2011) in ‘Optimizing schedules of retrieval practice for durable and efficient learning: how much is enough?’ suggest…

On the basis of the overall patterns of durability and efficiency, our prescriptive conclusion for students is to practice recalling concepts to an initial criterion of 3 correct recalls and then to relearn them 3 times at widely spaced intervals.

This has huge implications for those that teach a topic and move on, never for it to appear again until revision. The problem is teachers will say they don’t have time to do these repetitions. Rawson and Dunlosky (2012) explore durability and efficiency; we need to be able to do this using a minimal amount of time yet be as effective as possible. They call this process ‘distributed test–restudy’. The restudy is important. You cannot just teach/practise it once and hope it sticks. It will only work for a few students. Their research suggests certain amounts of practice testing and relearning improves overall learning.

Ideally we need to explain this to our students, and then use a similar model in our curriculum. If we struggle for time, homework can be used. In fact, I believe this is the best way homework can be used at secondary. Also, when doing pieces of work in written subjects, we shouldn’t be afraid to do the same thing, again and again. Without complicating it or adding anything to it, just repeating to get it right. One way I’ve been doing this is explained in this blog.

So, if you still have observations and someone wants to see something ‘new’ to prove students have made progress, send them to these links below and maybe mention basketball hoops.


Rawson, K. A., & Dunlosky, J. (2011). Optimizing schedules of retrieval practice for durable and efficient learning: How much is enough? Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 140(3), 283-302.

Rawson, K.A. & Dunlosky, J. (2012) When Is Practice Testing Most Effective for Improving the Durability and Efficiency of Student Learning Educ Psychol Rev (2012) 24: 41

Click to access rawson-dunlosky-2012.pdf


Rethinking planning – what if we plan not to finish?


Whenever I think of lesson planning, it is usually in the form of filling the lesson time with a series of ‘activities’/actions that will happen during the lesson. The activities fit neatly into the time available. A trainee may ‘overplan’ or ‘underplan’ but most teachers get used to how long things take and adjust their timings. It will be one topic of part of a topic, neatly arranged into the lesson, so that it covers ‘everything needed’.

In this model each lesson is a stand-alone lesson of content. I see many lessons shared with other teacher where these are literally named ‘lesson 1’, ‘lesson 2’ etc so each lesson is a stand-alone, in a series.


However, I generally don’t do this. Luckily I don’t have to write lesson plans in my school so planning is ‘in my head’. The difference to what I do from above is that I don’t plan activities that fill the length of the lesson. I plan for us to do things and I judge how long they will take at the time. I roughly know how long they’ll last but many times a side discussion on a linked topic will take more time or students will ask more questions.

(I have previously read a blog that links to this idea that a lesson isn’t a unit of learning by Bodil Isaksen ,A lesson is the wrong unit of time ,however sadly it no longer exists)

What if we deliberately plan not to finish something?

Instead of making a lesson the unit of learning*, make the ‘learning’ the unit of time; the learning dictates the timing not the other way round.

*learning being the set of things done that enable long term knowledge and understanding.



Without planning for this I’ve come to realise it means that it helps with long-term memory. It means they have to retrieve what we were doing last lesson and we have to recap. It makes them think about last lesson. They have to re-engage with the content.

It’s useful for those that are absent for a lesson. It means they haven’t fully missed out on something because we were partly through it. There’s more logic to trying to quickly copy notes and engage as it’s still a ‘live’ topic.

It also means an activity can carry on for as long as is needed; it’s not restricted by time. In my subject, we can discuss some topics more than others, students have examples they can share and we can expand or contract the timing as needed.

I also don’t have PowerPoints of lessons. (My use of PowerPoint isn’t ‘normal’ compared to others anyway). I have one PowerPoint of the entire topic all in one. It’s not neatly divided into lessons because I don’t know how long a lesson will be. Sometimes I add slides, sometimes I jump them. They’re not my lessons; they just hold useful stuff I don’t want to keep rewriting or re-searching for.


If time is an issue for your subject/class it may feel disorganised or not moving at the pace needed to cover the content needed. Planning each lesson has a certain neatness and certainty of covering all the syllabus needed.

I teach some classes every fortnight. I don’t use this with them. It is probably too much to ask them to do this and if someone was absent it would take them too long to catch up. It would be a constant catch up. I do use quick 1-10 quizzes at the start of lessons but I wouldn’t fully use the model above.

This model would be problematical for colleagues that have to hand in lesson plans in advance (which of course is nonsense in most cases) as you wouldn’t know how far you’d got along the way to write the next plan. You could however deliberately plan to split the end of lesson activity to go into the next.

If you have a trainee or you plan lessons in these neat blocks, consider if this might be a useful way to rethink lessons.

“Sorry Sir/Miss, I’ll stop doing it now”; Why we need to model responses for children


This week I have been thinking a lot about how children speak whilst in school, especially how they respond in certain situations. I’m particularly interested when what they say isn’t polite or tries to justify poor behaviour.

I’ve heard people say ‘it’s because they do it at home’. Of course, in some cases, this is true. This is the only school I’ve worked in where some students say ‘thank you’ after a detention! But some children lack the structure of polite social interaction as their parents don’t model it or allow them to argue or be rude, often in desperation of not knowing how to deal with them; it’s easier to let them say what they want than to battle with them. However, school doesn’t need to be like this. We are a separate part of their lives and we need to behave within our own environment’s boundaries.

There are things that can/can’t be acceptably said in each environment but for some students they don’t experience what is needed for the ‘outside world’. We need to decide what we want our school environment to look like and how we will model it; we can create a different language within our environment.

Having thought about it, saying ‘we model good behaviour every day’ to our students isn’t enough. If a child isn’t used to a way of behaving or speaking, they’re not just going to naturally identify that one adult at school is speaking differently than another at home and then imitate. We need to give them a model, link it to when it needs to be used and explicitly discuss it. Which is what I’ve been doing this week.

When a student is on the phone (against our school rules), I will tell them to put it away however it is often responded to with, who they’re on the phone to or why they ‘have’ to be on the phone or ‘they’re just going to be a minute’. None of these are appropriate responses, they are attempting to argue their point instead of acknowledging they’ve broken the school rule. As we haven’t modelled to them what is a good response, they revert to speaking to me as though I am a parent or a friend, not a member or staff telling them to stop breaking a rule. We need to give them the best response in a situation when they break a rule.

So, I’ve tried it with my form. I modelled a sample, appropriate response for them and reminded them of it every day. “Sorry Sir/Miss, I’ll stop doing it now”. Of course some of them probably think I’m mad as I’m telling them something they would already naturally do (or they wouldn’t break the rule in the first place) but others need it. If I’m in a situation with them where this applies I’m now saying ‘you’re breaking the rule….what is the correct response?’ And (sometimes begrudgingly) they say the modelled response; they have to think about the model before their natural response.

Criticisms of  modelling responses

They’re just saying it, they don’t mean it

Does that matter? They are learning and practising the polite and best way to deal with a situation. The point is that this might impact them in daily life, even when they leave school and it might just be the best way to stop the police officer giving them a fine!

We shouldn’t have to do this; we’re not their parents

No we’re not. But we have two options. Ignore it and use constant (often ineffective) sanctions or build up a school language that prevents further escalation in a situation from a simple breaking of rules to an encounter where a student argues and is rude to a member of staff. In my eyes, breaking a rule is one thing but a student trying to argue makes it ten times worse.

Part of our wider social support for students is that we provide a model of the ‘best’ way to behave in the wider society. In some schools this might be needed, in others it isn’t. Ignoring it is doing a disservice to our students.

It also reinforces the idea of context and that specific contexts require specific behaviours. If they behaved the same way in a place of work than in their lounge with their mates, they may find themselves in trouble. We can easily make school a different context from home but we need to do this explicitly for some.

It’s just dealing with the negative

I’ve given examples of the negative. We also need to model the positive. So after a week of the above, I modelled a positive; saying ‘thank you’ to someone. I stole the idea from Twitter (Michaela school) and got them to write a ‘thank you’ note to anyone in school for absolutely anything. Again, some thought it was weird, but others may not have said the words ‘thank you’ for a while. It hopefully made them think of what others do for them, not always ‘just’ teaching them, as part of a different environment than home. Their responses brought a tear to my eye and when I delivered them to the staff, it was so lovely to see their response to this unexpected ‘thank you’. I will tell the form about the response from staff and how important it is. I will challenge them to do this face to face with someone next week. I will model as much as I can with them as well.

These models of how to speak have the potential to make schools such nicer places to be, even if rules are broken; it makes it manageable. Now I’m thinking further about how what I say can be tweaked to explicitly model the ‘best’ response.