Explain lessons don’t have to be Didactic

As an English teacher, teaching context can, at times, seem like there are only a few pedagogical approaches and they become over used. I have lost count of the times in which , when introducing a new topic or text, I’ve reverted to my expert groups approach.

I’d had enough of using it, and the students had had enough of doing it. BUT, I am very much of the opinion that no matter the letter the students are responsible for their learning; it is not going to be didactically handed to them on a plate. Plus, where’s the fun in that!

Now I don’t use “fun” lightly; I am not a believer in lessons being “fun” for fun’s sake. I am a true believer in engagement – the crux of most lessons and schemes of learning is the way in which you engage students with the context you are about to teach them. Just read: Didau, Brown et al, Hattie, Carey, Nuttall for the proof there.

So, after nearly 8 years in teaching I finally am getting the chance to teach Animal Farm BUT despite reading it, I’d never experienced the teaching, and therefore deep understanding of communism and Russian history.

How was I going to get my students to understand the political and economical differences of capitalism, socialism and communism? I could use my An Inspector Calls lessons and adapt them but this was year 8 and I wanted them to not just know it but experience it.

Thus, Classroom Capitalism was created. Before understanding communism I think it important for them to see the opposite and also understand the way we live (cross curricular ties here).

After teaching it today, and have a great eureka moment, I thought I’d write about it.

The students came into the room and I handed them a random card with a job on it. Straight away they wanted there were happy students and not so happy – the reaction was immediate and we discussed why being the owner of a bank was liked more than working at a supermarket.

I then told them they were going to experience Capitalism in 40 minutes. On their group tables they have a pile of cards shuffled face down. Picking one at a time, it was read out and each person had to react according to their job. Were they happy, annoyed, sad, excited? Why?

They moved their counter up or down one space for every card read out and recorded their feelings on their sheet:

record sheet

An example of the cards the had to work through were:

capitalism card.jpg

The students managed to had a clear discussion and reacted to each scenario. They slowly began to realise that some of these things happen or have happened and began considering the impact on their parents too.

They ended the lesson by noting down, objectively, the positives and negatives they have learnt about Capitalism.

I hadn’t spent any longer than 5 minutes at the front explaining the task and they had managed to work out some of the positives and negatives of a Capitalist society.

Now I’m wondering how many other context lessons I can turn into games?


Getting the Science and Research into the Classroom.

I’ve found the last few years of education frustrating, I am sure like many other teachers.

When the “buzz” of independence was brought to the fore I was already a real believer. I felt lucky that my job allowed me, at the time, to really promote independence. Sadly, I feel the message, or at least the way I saw independence, was lost in the watered down, OFSTED filtered, fear of hitting observational criteria. When “independence” was taken off the OFSTED “must have” list I saw, from the head teacher down, an immediate dismissive attitude. They saw it as just another hoop that teachers were being made to jump through. It was frustrating, where was the understanding of the research and scientific depth behind independence? Perhaps it was mis-sold; many bought it a very specific way. Not surprising, with so many other things on a school’s mind: it was lost.

So, I wanted to delve a little deeper into the science because I am still a very firm believer in the need to teach students the ability to take responsibility, be resilient and a drive to succeed. This to me IS independence. A teacher’s responsibility is to help them get there.

I don’t by any means profess to be an expert, far from it, but I wanted to know more, understand more and turned to many books recommend. I will list the books at the end of this blog, but ultimately this blog is about making the students take responsibility for their own learning. I don’t say this lightly, or in the clichéd was it has been banded around of late. I mean, I have seen a significant improvement in students’ attitude when I purposely share my knowledge of learning from these books on cognitive psychology, educational research and mindset.

The first week of new classes in September is a typical who is who and what are you like; both from teachers and students. This year, as I have for the past 5 years, I wanted to set out my stall. Not with rules and admin explicitly but with a small ‘Understanding how to Learn’ scheme.

introduction lesson with students
introduction lesson with students

This slide is part of my lesson opening. I want to show the students that what I am sharing about their learning is not just ‘the teacher saying it’. It is a common belief currently, which is sad. Teacher’s no longer hold the credentials with students and parents that they once did AND I also think it is important to show that learning is ongoing and we are dedicated to helping them learn and progress.

setting out my stall
setting out my stall

My scheme that I created came from several books, some that you can see here on this slide but also a few I’ll add later. Again this gives you an idea of the type of things I want to cover with my students and have in previous years. The Learning Brain is a clip you can find on YouTube, it was recommended in ‘Making Every Lesson Count’ and is a great start for students to see how the brain, memory and learning are connected. I followed this clip with retrieval practice (a technique from ‘Making it Stick’) which is one of the 9 skills I teach the students in lesson three in helping them retain their learning for longer.

memory the forgetting curve

My ‘Did you know’ section covers the famous Ebbinghaus’ forgetting curve. Now I have tentatively created my own graph here so it isn’t perfectly, scientifically accurate (this is for students), but the key messages are there. Students worry about exams and assessments but that means they worry about their learning too late. It has been forgotten already. As teachers we are under a huge amount pressure to cover the criteria and test to see improvement. David Didau’s ‘What if..’ really stretched my thinking about the way I teach in many ways but the one that made me feel better was ‘Performance and Learning are two completely separate things’. Performance is immediate, in the classroom responding to the teaching as it happens. So, at the end of the lesson when you are checking if students have learned something that lesson it isn’t a true test of their learning. The forgetting curve shows that ultimately, IF the learning isn’t revisited, then the retention of that learning has decreased so almost nothing.

But what about engagement or making the lesson memorable? I asked myself the same question and Didau answered that too. Emotions and memory are connected BUT it is not necessary what we FEEL that makes us remember. ‘What we have not thought deeply about, cannot considered to be remembered’. It is the THINKING about the learning that makes it memorable. If we create a lesson that is essentially ‘fun’ then the memory will be more about the fun task you created rather than the implicit learning behind it. This is not to say lessons should not be engaging, but engaging in a way that helps students THINK and make connections to what they already know.

truth about feedbackwhich group did better

I really enjoyed the sections I read about feedback and wanted to find a way to share that with students. I took many things away from it that included a development of my marking sheet (now in numbers with rewritten targets linked to English skills). This MAD time sheet encourages students to take responsibility for their improvements. I LOVED reading that too much feedback can hinder a students need to struggle and find the correct answer. This doesn’t mean NEVER marking, but indicating WHERE errors are and getting the students to work it out. This feedback slide for students is to get them to recognise that students ASKING for feedback on areas and then getting in means they have taken the ownership of their learning. It also means that your feedback can be more focused. (again, thank you ‘What if..’ ‘Making Every Lesson Count’).

The slide to the right is something I have already shared before but here it is about showing the students. (‘Making it Stick) Interleaving the skills, giving the students time to forget before going back to the skill improves retention of the skills for the final assessments and long-lasting learning. I used this all last year to prepare my year 10 and 11 students for their GCSE exams and I am so proud of them. It paid off for about 75% of my year 11 middle band and 45% of my year 10 lower band. This included mixing up the skills, retrieval practice on the texts they needed and creating their own flash cards. I highly recommend these few strategies and will be continuing to use them this year with my new classes.

feedback and mindset

I first ran training on Carole Dweck’s Mindset back in 2012 and believe there is merit here. Yet, finding a way to teach this to the students in a way that will benefit their thinking and learning has been challenging. This is just one way I have used. I ask the students which feedback they would want to receive before showing the mindsets on the left. This gives me an idea of their mindset about their learning in school and leads me onto showing them the Austin’s Butterfly clip to encourage struggle and effort. I’ve developed it further this year with as display:

being a driver

These are a few of the posters I have created and displayed around my room along with an infographic of learning, memory and mindset. My classroom (stall) pays homage to all the educational research that I have read. I have over 50 quotes around the room about effort, memory, struggle and excellence. I am planning to get the students to define learning after they have completed this scheme and hoping to display their new ideas of learning around the room to inspire themselves with their own words.

I hope that my new reading and learning pays off for my students, yet even if it isn’t immediate I have a refreshed way of looking at education and learning that will motivate me when creating my schemes this year.

Any feedback and comments you have are more than welcome.


Shaun Allion and Andy Tharby: ‘Making Every Lesson Count: Six principles to support great teaching and learning’

David Didau: ‘What if Everything You Knew About Education Was Wrong?’

Peter Brown and Henry Roediger: ‘Making It Stick’

Daniel Kahneman: ‘Thinking: Fast and Slow’

Daniel Willingham: ‘Why Don’t Students Like School?’

Using Making it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning with staff and students.

After so much controversy on what independence is and how / whether it should be an essential part to learning and teaching; I wanted to spend this year looking deeper into what worked in learning.

I turned to the scientists and research: Thinking: Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman and Making it Stick by Peter Brown et al.

Below, I detail what I have learnt and how I have used this to adapt my teaching in the classroom.

The first thing I was happy to read was the confirmation of something I believe is essential in the classroom: explaining the why to the students. I have grounded my teaching in the understanding that if you want students to learn and take responsibility for this, they need to have the tools to do so. That requires me, the teacher, to show the students WHY they need to approach or do the tasks and how it helps their learning. This is where I felt the basics of Kahneman’s brain systems comes in. I took the first hour with my students, not going through rules of the classroom but getting them to understand how they learn and what the need to engage in their brain in order to learn. (see example below)

Example of the starter activity using Kahneman's theory.
Example of the starter activity using Kahneman’s theory.

Along with a few other examples – including the common optical illusions (saying the name of the colour as opposed to the colour of the word) to show students that their system 1 brain could not carry them through learning, was effective in showing the students that learning was a process that was challenging and demanding. It is also something I can now refer back to as a behaviour strategy (with all year groups) to help them get back on task.

The second lesson I wanted to use with my students was the findings from Making it Stick. It offers nine proven ways to help students sustain their learning. Depending on my group I differentiated which of these I introduced to the students but there are 3 key ways that I am trialling with my students this half term.

calibration example

The image above shows an example of how I used calibration with the students. I am sure many teachers complete something like this already: asking students to rate their confidence on each skill. The difference for me here was using this with the students to show what they think they are good at could be a trick of the mind. What I mean by this is that we often believe when we learn something and achieve well in that moment, we think we have mastered it. However, what we tend to find is a false sense of security and students would tend to ignore or put this skill to one side. This example shows how the students would rate themselves, then they would complete tasks that tested these skills. They could then go back to this sheet and compare how they did to what they thought. Essentially what this is helping the students do is recognise their own targets and change their mindset.

Another example that I am using with my year 10 and 11 students is retrieval practice.

retrieval practice example

This is the example that was shown to the students to explain what it is. What has come from showing this is the recognition that no pressure testing (for self reflection and revision) is an important part to their learning.

retrieval practice questions

This is one example of retrieval practice. The next step is using this to help students sustain for an even longer period time their learning. To help them leading up to the exams. Now, any English teacher will have heard more than once from students “I can’t revise for English.” The flashcard version of retrieval practice has become an answer to this “problem”.

flashcard example

Students were guided, using the type of questions they were asked for retrieval practice, to come up with 15 – 20 flashcard questions and answers that they could use again and again in preparation for their exams. The best part of this is that they already have the answers because they have annotated the texts. it is in their short term memory and immediate to them because they have spent the lesson studying it. The benefit here comes in two forms – students are asking in depth questions to help them explore the text (much like the examiner would expect from them). Secondly, they have created for themselves materials to help them revise by themselves or in study groups: even with parents as the answers are already on the back of the cards. From a teacher’s perspective it is important that I keep asking the students to use them and go back to them. It has become a great homework for the students this half term too!

A final comment to end this post is something I am un the process of trialling and have not perfected however, I can see the benefits.

space out learning

Above is an example from my year 10 and 11 over views for this half term. This is using Spaced out Learning. In other words the research says that students need some time to forget their learning in order to strengthen their understanding and sustainability in the topic. They are having to work harder to retrieve the learning from their memory which thus cements the learning more firmly into their long term memory. Or so the theory goes. I have to admit this is a difficult process to balance at the moment and I am not as yet seeing the long term effects. Naturally this is largely due to the short amount of time I have been embedding it.

Definitely something I will reflect on and continue to see if there is a benefit for my students.

As part of training from staff, along with the lesson I taught the students, I provided them with the list Making it Stick offered. This is something I will end my blog with.

teacher tips

Rugby advice

Firstly there is passion: I have played since I was six and this has meant I have gained a lot of knowledge from my time playing. This means I have gained the motivation to want to win and it has become more than just a game of rugby; if I let myself down it also means I have let me team down. It gets to a point where you need to want to win and this is the stage of passion where you need to be at if you want to succeed in rugby. By joining a team you could increase your passion for the game.

Next you have to find your best suited position. Personally I am a full back, it has taken me a long time to realise that this is the position where I can achieve my maximum potential. I started playing rugby young and this enabled me time to grow in both: performance and to understand the elements of positions. You could try out different positions to find which one you are best suited for and when you think you have found it ask for opinions from your coaches.


Thirdly there is: speed, stamina and strength all of which ear elements of fitness. You need to be training twice a week and if for any reason you are not training then have the personal motivation to go for a run or attend the gym. You should make sure that you are practicing in your own time to introduce new elements of all three points of fitness so that you can increase your capabilities. Personally I go for a jog every other day to increase and sustain my fitness, especially now I have an injury and cannot train with my team. Running at a good pace of 8 to 9 minute miles for varied distances.

Finally, you need composure. You have to keep a cool head when you are on the field because if you lack concentration then you will not preform at your highest level. As they say in High School Musical you’ve got to “keep your head in the game”. It is important that you must have a strong team to support you so that you have the reassurance to focus on your own game rather than having to worry about the people around you making mistakes. Keeping focused has enabled me to advance at the level of rugby I play at.

I hope you try this out and let me know if it works, if this is helpful in any way.
And good luck!

Rugby knowledge

By Reece Davies

Union vs. League
The games themselves are very similar, yet they are so different. Rugby union is all about the drives, winning the rook; making as much ground as humanly possibly. This is where rugby league is different, it has a different tempo in the game, with it’s stopping and starting, on and off. This fluidity is the main difference between the two games, and for me it’s a big difference, it changes the game completely.

Both sports are aggressive, if you have ever watched either of the two sports then you will clearly see that at the highest level of the games, the aggressiveness they have is to a whole new level than if you have ever played it yourself, and alike all sports, there is a huge element of competitiveness and this is what makes both great spectacles to watch.


Another point is that rugby league is less well known than rugby union. I think this is down to the fact that rugby union was the original sport played and league is an adaptation of it, and also the fact that Union is televised more for example you see union games on normal tv as well as sports channels which you don’t see with league with the exception of big finals or the rugby league World Cup which again will only be finals. Furthermore, the majority of aspiring rugby players want to play union, in my personal opinion this is linked to one of the previous points I made, Union is more televised, which therefore means the reputation of a player can increase. Finally, another point is that when you first begin rugby, you start off playing union, this can play a huge part on which type of rugby you play in the future.

My favourite is rugby union, to play, and to watch.

My OFSTED Experience: Aware and Share

Timing is OFSTED’s favourite thing I am sure of it. Or at least it felt that way when at 2pm on Wednesday, the day of our Open Evening (till 9pm!) we were made aware that OFSTED were ascending the next day. Panic naturally set in.
I knew we, as a school, had worked so hard on making whole school changes to improve the learning and teaching; but we are by no means there: very early in our journey in fact. I just hoped they could see the ‘work in progress’…

After day one it was clear that OFSTED were focusing on some very specific elements: differentiation, marking and independence. All elements that we were working on; having spent the past 18 months on training our staff on independence techniques I felt confident that we could show this. The marking, we were aware was a big working progress.

Friday morning was my turn… with my top set year 8 and we were creating our characters using MASOAPS techniques; and I knew that this was the set of books no where near as well marked as my others…

The inspector came in for the first half of the lesson. All students were completing their ‘engage’ and ‘connect’ activity:
engage and connect

The students were asked to match up and then for the techniques not used to create sentences to match.
I had divided the task into three elements linked to what was needed to be completed for: expected, good and outstanding progress.


The focus for the lesson was a reflection on the paragraph that they had written last lesson on their characters.
The ‘activate’ part of the lesson was focused on the students looking back at their last paragraph and highlighting where they had used the MASOAPS techniques. Each technique was allocated a point score depending on its challenge level and in relation to the students levels. (Metaphor was 10 points and adjectives 2 points.)
activate activity

From this I check on the points score by getting the students to all stand up and then sit down when they had reached their score on their paragraph. From this I was able to see students individual targets. All students were then told by the end of the lesson they had to improve their score by at least 30 points. This meant the task was differentiated but to a level that was challenging to all the students.

I wanted to also set a target that referred to the three dimensional element of the character so I then asked the students to divide their sentences into – physical and mental descriptions.
3D character

They then swapped their sheets and their partners set them a target based on the level of description. They now had TWO targets: one about the description and the other on the techniques they were using.
The students then had time to improve their paragraphs and self assess how many points they had gained during the lesson.


I share this to share the OFSTED comments. I was told this was ‘outstanding’ based on the differentiation, independence and progress they students were aware of and made.

However – I was made aware of the marking… although the books were marked with my comments and targets – the lack of student responses to my targets and comments meant that the progress over time was not evident. So the lesson only was evidence of progress within a short space of time.

We use MAD (Make a Difference) time and stickers to show this for ‘bigger’ assessment pieces, yet it seems evident that OFSTED want to see this as ongoing and for all pieces of work. We have introduced this year the ‘red pen’ system where, after you have marked the books the students can use their red pens to answer your comments and correct their errors.

I hope this was helpful / useful. Any questions or comments please do not hesitate to contact me.

I Will…

Even when your world is
Turned on its head;
Even when the words are
Printed in your mind;
Even when the memories and facts
Seep into your day;

I will remember who I am.

And in spite of each day being
A fight through a storm;
Despite the opening of
Pandora’s box;
Despite the struggle between
Hurtful years and angry cries;

I will resist giving up.

Yet the other half of me
Is letting me down.
She cannot survive the
Feeling of drowning.
Suffocating in the
Emotional waves that
Threaten to break
The strength, fought so hard to retain.

So despite the passing of time,
And even when people have
Ran out of things to say,

I will battle on in the hope that
In those quiet moments,
When I cannot distract myself;
my will, will not allow my future to be
Sabotaged by my past.

Magistrates’ Court PSHE SOL

I am lucky enough to have my father who is a Magistrate and could help me better understand the courts for our new PSHE curriculum. Another AST and I were tasked with reworking the PSHE curriculum to include the school’s focus on independent and interdependent learning skills. This meant we wanted to create lessons that incorporated these skills and also explicit skills on problem solving and learning to learn… but that’s another post.

Working in a comprehensive school that, like many, has students finding themselves, on occasion, on the wrong side of the law; I wanted to get this scheme right.

So yesterday I spent the morning in court… on the right side of the glass I might add! I was introduced to: Magistrates, a District Judge, Probation, the Press and an Usher that was fantastically helpful. That morning, plus the five hours I spent grilling my dad over sentencing guidelines, led to the creation of a mini 3 lesson scheme that aims to teach students the reality of breaking the law in 2013.

I cannot add all the slides I created here but I will outline the scheme and show some of the key ideas that might be of use to others teaching PSHE.

Lesson 1: Understanding the difference between Magistrates’ Court and Crown Court and the roles of the people within the court.

lesson 1

knowing the court

This was a roaming activity so the students all have a table to fill in – they must use note taking skills to find the 3 MOST important facts about the role and noting the down on their sheet.

individual sheet

example role detail

Lesson 2: Understanding Sentencing Guidelines for Common Crimes.

lesson outline


example crime

example crime

This lesson is set up like a court room – with the roles being played by members of the class – each scenario is gone through (using the script given). The rest of the class are the public, as they watch they are filling out what they have found out – surprises and questions they would like to ask any of the people playing the roles. There are five crimes in total – each with 3 scenarios – highlighting mitigating circumstances that would chance the sentence. This will take two lessons to cover; and depending on your group you can miss one or two out. An example of the scenarios are below:

scenario 1

Lesson 3: Summing up new learning

This lesson completes the scenarios and then requires the students to work in groups to create a ‘surprise me’ piece of work that incorporates all the learning. The criteria are shown below.

group task

These are only extracts of the lessons, however, if this is something you think you would be interested in having please contact me via twitter: @teachertrying.


Learning LOUD

For anyone that is already not aware, I believe in independent learning for all students. No – I do not mean everyone sit in silence and copy out of a text book and no I do not mean the teacher can sit at the desk and mark.

My journey to being a “guide on the side” and encouraging independence in my students has, and is, challenging. I have found the amount of time I put into planning has increased. Why? Because I realised I needed to be prepared to not give the answers but have a choice, variety and options available for students to find out the answers. This means that in lesson I have what is needed.

This made me realise that learning is not a secret, guarded and only given to those most worthy. Just as technology has proven to us, the teacher is not the answer and never should be. Of course we can provide the direction, the encouragement and the skills to question opinions and judgements but we are not there to spend the majority of the lesson answering “what’s the date?” “what’s a metaphor again miss?”.

What learning needs to encourage is the process of wanting to find out and taking the information to use in different contexts. Therefore LEARNING LOUD became my new approach – simply put I mean making the environment in which learning takes place filled with vibrant, VAK ‘help yourself’ information. There is not a space in my room that is not readily availble for students to learn from. I have help yourself language features, skills examples, definitions and worksheets; inspiring quotes, an independence wall, a stuck board, progression wall, emotions board: all with the aim to help students seek out the answers for themselves. This is not about hiding the information by not answering the question but making the information readily available – they just have to get out of their seat and seek it out for themselves. The responsibility is on them not the teacher.

As I have gone display crazy (now extended to the library, the assembly hall and the staff room) I have had to seek out apps that can help in my somewhat lacking artistic area. I recommend highly: DIPTIC, QUIPIO and PHOSTER for this.

Thank you to those that have already asked for copies of my resources I display a few more below as examples of how I help the students LEARN LOUD.

learning loud 3

learning loud display 2

learning loud display

language features 4

language features 3

language features 5

homophones features display

language features display

language features 2


Crushed by the weight
You’re reduced to your knees.

The four walls close in
It’s like a personal prison.

You’re only escape is to battle
The Rubix cube.

Every combination you fail
Brings you closer to scream.

Your will is tested
Your strength to with stand.

The excruciating pain doubles its attack.
You’re forced to withdraw
Forget who you are.

Does it matter who wins
Your pride is already gone
You hope that one day
You can battle on
I can battle on
We can battle on

Because you are more than words
You are more than pain
You are more than grades.

I am my decisions
I am my choices
I refuse to fail!

The battle goes on.