Where next? Assessment in the Principles of Instruction

An assessment is only worth doing if it is carefully planned with a clearly defined purpose – are you trying to monitor progress, forecast grades or elicit the learning needs of your students? Assessment has often been synonymous with summative tests in my thinking. As a science teacher I have always given students a test at the end of a topic without giving due consideration to the purpose and content of the test. It was just something which I did because it was department policy and we needed some data on which to base report grades. Assessment encompasses so much more than summative tests and just as I tested my students without careful planning, the formative assessment within my lessons was often unplanned, incidental, focused on recently learned content, and done without sufficient forethought regarding how I would make use of what it revealed.

Recently I have been giving much greater thought to assessment and have come to realise what a powerful tool it can be in supporting students’ learning. Purposeful assessment dovetails beautifully with the Principles of Instruction (Rosenshine, 2012) which have come to the forefront in education in recent years. Here I outline, based on my own practice, how apposite assessment, in line with Rosenshine can support and enhance the Principles in answering the question, “where should we go next?” on the journey of instruction and learning in the classroom.

Formative Assessment and the Principles of Instruction

Tom Sherrington has elaborated extensively on the Principles of Instruction (Sherrington, 2019). I have been developing my teaching practice to apply these principles more fully but have focused mainly on how they relate to imparting knowledge and developing student understanding. Things such as sequencing the curriculum to allow for regular review, breaking knowledge down into small chunks, modelling and scaffolding. I have made use of weekly review, asking questions and checking for student understanding, but have done so without fully grasping the power of formative assessment as part of successful instruction. Sherrington groups Rosenshine’s Principles into four categories which I have found helpful when considering practical ways to build more purposeful formative assessment into my teaching. 

  1. Reviewing Material

One of the first changes I made in my teaching practice as a result of reading about the Principles of Instruction was to introduce low stakes retrieval quizzes at the start of most lessons. I gave students a list of all the questions and answers they might be tested on and randomly selected 6-8 questions from the material we had covered at the start of each lesson. This has been beneficial in supporting students recall of key knowledge, but I have gradually moved to selecting the questions more carefully to check up on and activate the prior learning related to the current lesson or to replace some of the questions with related ones which force students to apply their understanding in a slightly different context. The Retrieval Roulette is a really helpful tool for this style of review and you can read more about how to make the most of retrieval practice through the CogSciSci symposium on the subject.

One trap which I have fallen into is to think that if students can successfully complete a task in the lesson in which it was introduced then they have learned to do it (sometimes referred to as ‘performance’ rather than ‘learning’ (Bjork and Bjork, 2011)). Regular review by quick tests of knowledge (facts, skills, procedures etc.) learned in previous lessons (a day, week or month ago) not only gives more valuable feedback on what students have securely learned, but also helps to strengthen the long term memory through the testing effect (Dunlosky, 2013).

  1. Questioning

The importance of questioning in checking student understanding is evident and Sherrington sums this up as ‘ask more questions to more students in more depth’, as well as elaborating on some helpful strategies (Sherrington, 2018). My default practice has been verbal questioning, I do a lot of this. But even the most skillful use of verbal questioning can never check the understanding of every student in the class. This doesn’t always matter, but some questions are vital in terms of formative assessment to decide whether to move on, recap or do more practice. These questions test students’ understanding of threshold concepts (which are crucial foundations for building the next layer of knowledge). These are often called ‘hinge questions’ and with these I think it is important to get a response from all students. Multiple choice questions designed to pick up on common misconceptions or common pitfalls enable the understanding of a whole class to be checked rapidly, these can include process questions where appropriate.

  1. Sequencing concepts and modelling

Sherrington places “introducing new concepts in small steps” into this category, along with modelling and scaffolding (Sherrington, 2018). Small steps are as important in assessment as they are in delivering new material and this is where I have made some of my biggest errors. I have tended to check up on understanding within a given lesson, assume that students will still remember and be able to do the same thing the next lesson (without checking again), and then wonder why they were unable to answer a question drawing on several areas of the topic in a summative test. Just as information needs to be presented in small steps, it is important to check understanding of these small steps – with time for forgetting in between (Weinstein and Sumeracki, 2019) – especially when each small step builds on the one before to construct the increasingly expert schema. 

I have started to begin more of my lessons with a task which checks up on key understanding from previous learning that is required for the current lesson. This task is completed from memory, which itself helps to secure long term learning, and may still include some level of scaffolding or modelling if students are still towards the novice stage of their understanding. This could be a longer answer exam question remodelled as a series of smaller questions to support students in working through to the end, while still testing their ability to complete each step successfully. Not only does this check their understanding but gives me an important insight into which stage of their learning is insecure.

  1. Stages of practice

“Students need extensive, successful, independent practice in order for skills and knowledge to become automatic” (Sherrington, 2018) and our role as teachers is to give them the resources and opportunities to conduct this practice, to check up on their success and to guide them until they are successful enough to be able to practice independently. This aspect of assessment involves knowing your students, engaging with them individually as they practice and being ready to appropriately support and stretch (drawing on the benefits of desirable difficulties to promote learning (Bjork and Bjork, 2011)) them to ensure that all are engaged in learning until the class as a whole is ready to move on. SLOP booklets and ramped worksheets are excellent for this in science.

The Place of Summative Assessment 

My mistake has been to invest more time than I now think can be justified in summative assessment, checking whether students are able to answer questions which require the full schema to be in place when I haven’t really checked up on the steps along the way. I often assessed students using past exam questions when they had only completed a few weeks or months of a course and was surprised when they were unsuccessful. Such summative assessments have value in determining understanding after a large sample of the domain has been studied and to give an indication of how students are likely to perform in public exams, but they have little value as a tool to diagnose learning needs and promote learning when students are still very much at the novice stage. In my heavy use of summative assessment, I have sacrificed time and effort which would have been better spent on the formative assessment strategies I have discussed. These not only enable me to know exactly where the gaps and inaccuracies in my students’ schemata are, so that I know what needs additional explanation and practice, but also support the securing of long term learning through the Principles of Instruction which have been shown to be effective.

Too often I have used poorly planned assessments with the results having little or no impact on my next steps in teaching or my students’ learning – this is a waste of everybody’s time. For any assessment to be beneficial it needs to be designed with a specific and clearly defined purpose in mind and good use made of the information in yields.


Rosenshine (2012) – https://www.aft.org/sites/default/files/periodicals/Rosenshine.pdf (accessed 8/2/2020)

Sherrington (2019) – Rosenshine’s Principles in Action. Published by John Catt.

Retrieval Roulettes – https://achemicalorthodoxy.wordpress.com/2018/08/18/retrieval-roulettes/

CogSciSci Retrieval Symposium – https://cogscisci.wordpress.com/2020/01/23/retrieval-practice-in-the-classroom-a-cogscisci-symposium/

Bjork E L and Bjork R A (2011). Making things hard on yourself, but in a good way: Creating desirable difficulties to enhance learning. Psychology and the real world: Essays illustrating fundamental contributions to society (p. 56–64).

Dunlosky (2013) – https://www.aft.org/sites/default/files/periodicals/dunlosky.pdf (accessed 8/2/2020)

Sherrington (2018) – https://teacherhead.com/2018/06/10/exploring-barak-rosenshines-seminal-principles-of-instruction-why-it-is-the-must-read-for-all-teachers/ (accessed 8/2/2020)

Weinstein Y and Sumeracki M with Caviglioli O (2019) Understanding How We Learn: A Visual Guide. Abingdon, Oxon; Routledge.

Assessment – what’s the point?

“Don’t worry, they always get that question wrong, everyone struggles with this test.”

I recently found myself saying this in conversation with a colleague in my department. Comments which people had been making about this particular test for as many years as students have been sitting it. Reflecting on this conversation in the light of what I’ve been learning about assessment through the Assessment Lead Programme from Evidence Based Education I realised that this wasn’t a conversation I should be having. If different cohorts of students are consistently finding an assessment challenging and making the same mistakes year after year, this is not something that should be dismissed as being down to a difficult topic or a challenging test, but something which should cause me to ask questions. Why are students finding the test so difficult? What is it that is preventing them from answering the questions correctly? Is the test actually assessing what I need it to? Do I need to alter something in the way material is being taught?

Learning is all about developing the novice schema our students bring into the classroom towards the expert schema that we have developed through our more extensive study of our subject disciplines. We know that learning takes place in the context of what we already know (Willingham, 2010), so the ability to appropriately and accurately assess the development of our students’ schema is crucial, and is something to which I have not given nearly enough thought. I have been spending a lot of time thinking about lesson planning and delivery, including regular assessment of key knowledge through retrieval quizzes, and being more deliberate in recapping prior learning at appropriate points to boost knowledge retention and encourage students to build links between topic areas. But I have blithely continued to use the same types of assessments that I have been using for years. For GCSE students these are tests made up of past exam questions. Is this really the most appropriate form of assessment for these students?

Here I reflect on an example of how I have used assessments which I now consider to be unfit for purpose and how I think they could be improved. The topic in question is Structure, bonding and the properties of matter from GCSE Chemistry. (If you’re not a scientist, bear with me as I hope the principles of what follows will be applicable more widely.) This is a big topic in GCSE Chemistry which focuses on the different types of bonding which occur between atoms (ionic, covalent and metallic) and how the properties of the main structure types (giant ionic, giant covalent, simple molecular and metallic) can be explained by understanding the nature of the bonding between their constituent particles (atoms, ions or molecules). I recently taught this topic in the following sequence:

  • Ionic bonding, ionic structures, properties of ionic structures.
  • Covalent bonding.
  • Giant covalent structures, properties of giant covalent structures.
  • Simple covalent molecules, properties of simple covalent molecules.
  • Mid point test – past exam questions.
  • Metallic bonding, metallic structures, properties of metallic structures.
  • Nanomaterials and their properties.
  • End of topic test – past exam questions.

Despite students appearing to have understood the content of the topic during lessons where they were able to accurately describe and explain the properties of different structure types, when it came to the midpoint test, similar questions were answered poorly. For example, shortly before the test, in a lesson on simple covalent molecules, most students had accurately answered the question, describe and explain the properties of chlorine. A related question in the test which few students answered accurately was, the bonding in iodine is similar to that in chlorine, explain why iodine has a low melting point.

Around the time that I was marking these tests I read an excellent blog post from Adam Boxer (Boxer, 2019) about what to do following a test in which he wrote about an example of how he was planning on revisiting the links between the properties and structure of different states of matter, making more explicit the distinction between the properties and the structure and how one can be used to explain the other. I decided to take a similar approach in revisiting the structure and properties of substances resulting from the different types of bonding. I spent a significant period of lesson time recapping this knowledge building up notes under the visualiser together with my class with lots of questioning and examples.

I then spent time modelling with students how they should approach these questions, giving them a structure to follow in developing an answer as this type of question always requires a similar response:

  1. Identify the structure type.
  2. Identify the properties are you explaining.
  3. Explain why this structure type has these properties.

We worked through a couple of examples together on the board before students wrote further answers independently. Their answers were much better than those in the test and several students commented on how they felt they now understood the topic.

Students seemed to be making progress, so I continued with teaching the rest of the topic, giving plenty of practice at identifying structure types and reviewing prior learning regularly. My class sat the end of topic test a few weeks later. This test covered more content than the midpoint test and there were a few short answer questions, but the style of most questions was similar and we’d done lots of practice over the intervening period. Some typical questions from the test included:

  • Some welding blankets are made from silicon dioxide which does not melt when hit by sparks or molten metal. Describe the structure and bonding in silicon dioxide and explain why it is a suitable material for making welding blankets.
  • Explain why oxygen is a gas at room temperature.
  • Magnesium oxide is a white solid with a high melting point. Explain these properties with reference to the structure and bonding in magnesium oxide.
  • Graphite is softer than diamond. Explain why.
  • Graphite conducts electricity, but diamond does not. Explain why.

I felt confident that more students would be able to tackle these questions following all the work we’d done since the midpoint test. The reality was that the students who had been able to answer questions well at that time still could, while most of the others were still making the same mistakes. 

My class had spent two lessons sitting tests, most of them had made the same mistakes on both occasions and I felt that I was no better informed as to why. This made me think about the design of the assessment. The tests had revealed to me that a lot of my students were unable to answer exam questions which required them to identify a structure type and explain its properties in relation to the type of bonding involved. However, because most of the questions on the test required the students to remember to think about, and correctly identify the structure type, recall the properties of that structure, and explain how the bonding in the structure related to those particular properties, in addition to remembering to use all the correct terminology along the way, I was none the wiser as to the root cause of the poor answers. 

The problem could have come at many stages. Perhaps they forgot the how to structure their answers. Maybe they couldn’t remember how to identify which structure type was involved. Perhaps it was the recall of the properties for each structure type that was missing. Or it could be that they hadn’t understood the difference between ions and molecules or covalent bonds and intermolecular forces. The tests my students had sat simply didn’t provide me with this information. I couldn’t use them to unpick where the misconceptions or gaps in their knowledge lay. They do need to be able to answer these exam questions, but not for another 18 months. Right now I don’t need to know whether they can answer an exam question. I do, however, need to know what they don’t know and what they don’t understand so that I can plug the gaps. Knowledge of this topic will be vital in understanding numerous other aspects of chemistry that they will be studying, this knowledge needs to be secure.

On reflection, I could easily have made this test more useful. Instead of the single question, some welding blankets are made from silicon dioxide which does not melt when hit by sparks or molten metal. Describe the structure and bonding in silicon dioxide and explain why it is a suitable material for making welding blankets. 

I could have broken this down into parts:

Some welding blankets are made from silicon dioxide which does not melt when hit by sparks or molten metal. 

  1. Identify the type of bonding in silicon dioxide.
  2. What structure type does silicon dioxide form?
  3. What property of silicon dioxide makes it suitable for use as a welding blanket?
  4. Explain this property in terms of the bonding in silicon dioxide.

This would have tested exactly the same material, with several benefits. It would:

  • give students more structured practice in tackling this style of question (I could still have left one question as it was, or have faded the structure through the course of the test paper to determine whether the underlying knowledge was insecure or if the challenge was applying it to the more open ended questions).
  • be likely to give all students some level of success, leaving them feeling positive about their ability and more motivated to learn.
  • have enabled me to identify at which stage the knowledge and understanding of my students was breaking down, giving me the information I needed to make best use of time in future lessons.

We too often focus on the end game when designing assessments at GCSE. Rather than always using past exam questions (which might well be suitable for an end of year exam or in some topic areas) because that’s what students ultimately need to be able to answer, we should think carefully about the purpose of the assessment. What information about student learning do we wish to gain from the assessment? Is it going to provide us with this information? Is the assessment going to be useful in helping us to plan the next steps to secure student learning? If the answer to the last two questions is ‘no’ then we probably need to think again about using the assessment, whether it’s a big test or a small part of a lesson.

In any functional design process, having a clearly defined purpose is essential to success. Assessment design is no exception.


Willingham (2010) – Why don’t students like school? Jossey Bass.

Boxer (2019) – https://achemicalorthodoxy.wordpress.com/2019/11/21/what-to-do-after-a-mock-into-the-classroom-with-whole-class-feedback/ (accessed on 25/1/2020).

Don’t ask me.

Don’t ask me. How often these words have gone through my mind as I’ve sat in a classroom, or a meeting, trying at all costs to avoid eye contact with whoever was asking the question.

Afraid of being noticed and afraid of being overlooked. This is a contradiction I have battled with in my mind for as long as I can remember. I’m an introvert and a worrier, I have always been anxious about the opinions of others. As a child I was painfully shy, social events were excruciating, society expected me to talk, to participate, to want to be noticed. I just wanted to be invisible, but then felt left out if people ignored me. I loved learning, but at school I might be asked to contribute, to answer a question or share an opinion – what if I got it wrong? This was scary. Sometimes my mind was full of ideas but the panic induced by being asked to share left me tongue-tied and stumbling over the words. This was embarrassing. Why couldn’t I just be left alone to listen, and learn? There’s been a number of threads and tweets shared recently which have highlighted the need for us to be aware that some of our quieter students might feel like this. These have encouraged me to think about the way I interact with them and the language I use. This is so important and has made me realise that I have treated some of my students in exactly the way that I hated being treated as a child. However, this is not a post about teaching introverts, but leading them. Not the students, the teachers.

Pondering this subject, I’ve thought about my journey as a teacher. I was recently reminiscing with colleagues about what I was like as a trainee. Their comments were, “I used to worry that there was something really wrong, you didn’t talk at all” and, “You didn’t say very much, you smiled, and ended up blushing quite a lot!”. That was eight years ago and I can laugh about it now. These were two teachers who mentored me through that year and have had a huge influence on me as a teacher. I’m now their head of department. I was, and still am, very shy in situations with people that I don’t know well. I still struggle when I find myself out of my comfort zone and can be reluctant to put myself in unfamiliar situations. I still sometimes blush for no good reason, or stumble over my words, if I find myself having to speak up when I’d prefer to remain silent. I’m an introvert in a profession which feels to be dominated by extroverts.

This is not supposed to be a post about my personality, but I have shared this because I imagine it must be hard for an extrovert to understand people like me – the way we think and the sort of things we find difficult. I am certain that there are some of us in every school. I am very thankful that, at each stage in my career, I have had people in a leadership or mentoring role who have nurtured me, and enabled me to flourish in an environment which could have been very challenging. I like to get on with life without being noticed, all the while hoping that someone will notice and acknowledge the work I put in, but quietly, not in public. 

Most of what I read about leadership is written by leaders. I write from the perspective of someone who has been on the receiving end of exemplary leadership and my aim is to highlight some key lessons for leaders (and others) in understanding, working effectively with, and bringing the best out of their more introverted colleagues. In doing so, I draw on my experience of how I have been supported by those who have enabled me to flourish. I’m writing this as a way of saying thank you, and in the hope that it might be helpful and give some insight to others. I’ve picked out five key leadership practices which have made a real difference to me:

  • Build relationships – I find it hard to get to know new people, let alone to the extent of being able to trust them, take their praise as genuine and accept advice and criticism as supportive and constructive. Working with a new colleague, or having a new manager is an opportunity I welcome, but it also brings fear. Another person I need to get to know. Another person who might have expectations which I’m not confident that I’ll be able to live up to. I’m sure that getting to know an introvert can feel like hard work, but this has been the most important aspect of the positive leadership relationships I’ve worked in. We all want to feel valued and trusted, and to be able to trust those we work with. This only comes through really knowing a person and understanding their strengths and weaknesses, enabling you to harness their strengths and help them to develop in weaker areas. Take the time to talk, to ask for opinions and ideas, to discover their interests and their fears. But remember that the most important part of a conversation is listening and giving time for thought.
  • Take time to meet properly – As a quiet person, I will rarely volunteer an opinion publicly and it takes a lot of courage for me to speak up in a group discussion. This doesn’t mean that I don’t think about things carefully, or have opinions and ideas – in fact, really thinking things through is one of my strengths. One of the leadership practices I have found most helpful has been the opportunity to have meetings where I am able to discuss ideas and share opinions openly, without fear of judgement, but being sure of an honest response. Asking the opinions of those you work with shows that you value their thoughts and believe that they have something of worth to contribute. This can have a huge impact in building the confidence to speak out and share ideas in a more high-risk environment. Give your more reticent colleagues opportunities for their voice to be heard, but not initially in public (at least not without prior warning).
  • Affirm and encourage – When you notice that a colleague is doing a great job, tell them so, and thank them for it. There have been countless times over my career when I have been doubting myself or feeling that I wasn’t good enough, and a quiet word of thanks, acknowledgement and encouragement has been so reassuring. I also remember times when I had ideas of things I wanted to do, or was interested in investigating further, and I didn’t pursue them because I questioned whether it was a good idea, or was fearful of what others would think. I didn’t think anyone else would be interested. A word of support or encouragement might have made all the difference – I don’t blame anyone but myself for this (nobody can be expected to be a mind reader!) but if you’re leading others, seek to find out what drives them, what their passions and aspirations are and encourage them in these areas.
  • Point out opportunities – I’m so thankful for the times when people have pushed me or encouraged me to do things which I wasn’t comfortable with or certain that I was ready for – teaching out of my specialist subject area, applying for promotion, leading sessions for trainee teachers, presenting, blogging, to name a few. Stepping out of my comfort zone is risky, it might go wrong and leave me open to criticism. But when you take that step, do a good job, and succeed, the reward is huge! As a leader, look out for opportunities which match the strengths of those you lead, things you know they will make a success of. Point out the opportunities, encourage them to take those steps, support them in doing so, then step back and watch them fly. Sometimes we do need to be made to do things, but it needs to be the right thing at the right time. As I think is common among introverts, I rarely believe that I’m ready for a new thing so I need people to show me that I am, even if that means leading me to the edge and giving me a (little) push!
  • Avoid an extrovert culture – My most uncomfortable memories of life as a teacher are of sitting in staff meetings dreading being asked to contribute without warning or time to think. If you’re in a position of leadership, at school or department level, avoid developing an extrovert culture. Introvert teachers probably already feel quite overwhelmed from the hours interacting with people in their classroom every day. The last thing we need is a meeting or INSET session where we’re unexpectedly asked to speak out and share an idea or opinion. Thankfully, these occasions have been rare in my experience. Develop a culture of openness, discussion and sharing of ideas, but avoid situations where people might be put under the spotlight – this will go a long way to making your introvert colleagues feel safe and included.

None of this is earth shattering, I’m sure it’s all simply good leadership regardless of the personality of those you’re working with, but these things really have made a difference to me. Often, I know I’m capable of doing something or that I have a good idea, but it takes a lot of energy and courage to do it or to speak out. Having those with a bit more experience than me, who have cared enough to get to know and understand me, who I know I can trust to say, “yes, that’s a great idea” or, “no, don’t do that” has given me the confidence to get to where I am today. Eight years ago I was the trainee who hardly spoke. I’m now Head of Science, I’ve presented to local school leaders and at conferences, I’ve started blogging, and done many other things I would not have imagined. I’m even considering whether one day I might take the next step and move into school leadership – something I would never have dreamed of even a year or two ago. It is the leaders and others around me who have mentored and encouraged me that have made this possible. So, if you lead in a school, at any level, please notice the introverts, encourage and nurture them, give them a voice. 

Do ask me. I have lots of valuable things to say and ideas to share. But please do it quietly.

Equation-centric physics teaching – why I’m leaving it behind.

“Physics is boring.”, “Physics is hard.”, “Physics is just remembering all the equations.” Comments I have heard all too often from students. I’ve been thinking about why many students have this perception of physics, whether it’s justified, and how we might be able to move away from it.

With the increased requirement for students to memorise equations, and the large percentage of marks in GCSE papers devoted to their recall and use (well over 30% in 2019 AQA GCSE Physics papers), it’s no surprise that teachers are tempted to focus on equations. I’ve certainly been guilty of this. In the 2019 AQA Physics papers a student scoring full marks on all the calculation questions, while leaving the rest of the paper blank, would have achieved a Grade 5 – what further justification of the importance of equations is required, you might ask? I’m certainly not advocating forgetting about equations, or saying that they’re not important, but it’s very easy to think (especially for non-specialist teachers) that the equation is king. If students can recall equations and plug in the correct numbers then they’ve got it, they’ve understood electricity (V = IR), forces (F = ma), waves (v = fλ). The list could go on and on. This is clearly far from the truth, but it’s often the way students think because it’s the way physics is taught.

The ability to remember and apply the correct equation is a necessary skill and might get lots of exam marks. However, it is robbing students of their entitlement to a real understanding of the physical world, and I suspect that an emphasis on equations in teaching is, at least partly responsible for the prevalent view amongst students that physics is ‘boring’ – who wouldn’t quickly get tired of plugging apparently random numbers into formulas to calculate values which have no real meaning if the physics behind the equations has not first been understood?

Hearing Tom Sherrington speak at ResearchEd Surrey sparked off this train of thought. He spoke about the importance of experience and knowledge in the context of the motor effect and the equation F = BIL (also see here). Students need to experience magnets, motors, the interplay between electricity and magnetism and the influence of a magnetic field on a current carrying wire, before they can really grasp the motor effect, or understand F = BIL as more than an abstract formula. They need to handle these things, experience them and see the effects of changing the parameters, not in a “discovery learning” – go away and ‘reinvent the motor’ or ‘rediscover the relationship’ – sort of way, but in the sense of having a concrete feel for the physical phenomena which underpin the workings of the electric motor and the interactions between them. Giving students opportunities to develop the tacit knowledge which is gained from hands on experience is so important. We need to alter our approach so that when I teach Year 13 electromagnetism my students’ first response is no longer, “Oh yeah, Miss, we know all about this, ‘F equals Bill’.”! Especially as, when I probe beneath the surface, this seems to be the extent of their knowledge – a memorised equation with little or no underlying substance.

I started to think about other equations and whether I was guilty of an equation-centric approach. The answer is yes. I’ve definitely introduced new concepts through the equation rather than focusing on developing students’ understanding of the underlying physical concepts and the relationships between them, before adding in the equation as a means of quantifying this. Equations enable you to find the size of physical parameters. But for the development of a sound schema the underlying concepts and understanding are of fundamental importance. When we focus on the equations and plugging endless numbers into calculators, we are denying our students the opportunity to really grapple with the physical realities which these equations describe. Wherever possible we should begin physics teaching by developing an understanding of the concept only adding in the numbers when this is understood.

I’ve started to think through a couple of topics with this approach which I have outlined below. I’ve found it helpful to map out the knowledge which underpins each equation, before thinking about a teaching sequence to revisit or teach this information and build up an understanding of the physical realities of the equation only introducing numerical examples at the end.

Example 1: Newton’s second law of motion

Example 2: Ohm’s Law

The equation shouldn’t lead the learning – the conceptual physics is what will enable students to understand and explain the world around them, equations are just a way of quantifying the parameters involved.

Equations might be boring, physics certainly is not!

A transformative year

The past year has been transformative in my teaching career, not because I’ve joined a new school, taken on a new role or taught a new subject, but because I have discovered the world of educational research and evidence informed practice. I purchased Daniel Willingham’s Why don’t students like school? in June 2017, but it was only during the summer holidays in 2018 that I picked it up and started reading. I’m so glad that I did. This introduction to cognitive science and its implications for classroom practice changed the way I think about knowledge and skills and their relationship to one another. It also put some vague ideas I had about how we learn into clearly stated “cognitive principles” with direct links to pedagogy which I could see practical ways of implementing. The shift in my thinking while reading this book was profound. For the first time in my teaching career I felt that I had grounds to make changes to my practice with the confidence that research backed up what I was doing. Four of Willingham’s “cognitive principles” which have particularly shaped my teaching are:

  • Factual knowledge precedes skill.
  • Memory is the residue of thought.
  • We understand new things in the context of things we already know.
  • Proficiency requires practice.

I had joined Twitter by the time I read this book, having been told by several people that it is ‘the best CPD you’ll ever get’ (I now say the same to others). I wanted to find out more about the available research and how teachers were putting it into practice so I started to engage with more people, read articles, blogs and books and found myself picking up more ideas than I knew what to do with. I also joined Teacher Tapp and the daily tips were a source of new ideas and inspiration. I was hooked. 

I have read more about teaching this year than in the first seven years of my teaching career combined. I have also talked more about the what, why and how of teaching – surely the most important questions we can consider in a school? I have learned many things – some completely new, some affirming things I was already doing and some challenging what I previously believed to be true. In this post, as I reflect on another year of teaching, I want to briefly outline a few areas in which what I have read has influenced me and altered my thoughts and classroom practice and the direction in which I am leading my department. I have tried to include links to the blogs, articles and books which I have found particularly helpful. However, I have read so many that I’m sure I will miss some out for which I apologise.

  1. Curriculum design – content, sequence, coherence. At a department level, this is the most important thing we can consider. What do we want students to know, understand and be able to do at each stage? What is the best order to teach this content? Are the resources, definitions, explanations etc. coherent between teachers, lessons, year groups and subjects? Carefully considering the curriculum, identifying the core knowledge content and moving towards an optimal teaching sequence is probably the most valuable process I have gone through this year. A well thought through curriculum is the necessary foundation if the more day-to-day strategies which follow are to have their maximum impact. Tom Sherrington’s blog is an excellent starting point and Michael Young’s, Knowledge and the Future School and Mary Myatt’s, The Curriculum: Gallimaufry to Coherence give a more in-depth introduction to the thinking behind designing a knowledge-rich curriculum. I found blog posts by Ruth Walker and Jasper Green particularly helpful for Science.
  2. Plan for learning in a topic, not a lesson. This has been one of the biggest shifts I have made in my thinking – planning for learning in a sequence of lessons, rather than lesson-by-lesson. I no longer have a lesson plan. In each lesson we recap prior learning, I introduce and explain new ideas carefully and students practise. Lots. This gives me the opportunity to assess their understanding and confidence. We get as far as we get and pick up where we left off in the next lesson. I plan carefully, thinking about the knowledge I want students to acquire, the best order to introduce concepts, how to explain new ideas clearly and how to assess understanding. I have a good idea of how long the topic will take, but exactly how much time we’ll spend on each part is something I can’t predict. It depends on me, the class, the time of day, and a multitude of other factors beyond my control. I don’t use booklets to teach (perhaps I will one day), but Adam Boxer’s blog on teaching with booklets covers this concept of planning for a lesson sequence really well and in great detail.
  3. Doing doesn’t equal learning. This is very closely linked to point two above. It’s easy to follow a scheme of work and think that because you’ve delivered a lesson and students have done whatever activity you planned, learning has taken place. This is not necessarily true. Do you really know that they have learned what you want them to? How? Even if they can all complete a task at the end of this lesson will they still be able to do it tomorrow? Next week? If it’s dressed up in a different context? I’ve started to think very carefully about how and when I will check learning as well as building checks of prior learning into future lessons so that I can assess longer term retention and see whether students have really understood a concept or simply rote learned a method or explanation.
  4. Regular retrieval. Cognitive science points to retrieval practice as key to long term knowledge retention. I have used Retrieval Roulettes with my KS4 classes this year and seen a marked improvement in students’ confidence and ability in recalling core knowledge and explanations. Each lesson starts with a handful of questions about prior learning (recent and more distant). I probe students’ understanding with further questioning as we talk through the answers and they make any corrections or additions to what they’ve written. The constant recall and thinking involved is building security and automaticity in this core knowledge which will underpin and enable a deeper understanding of more complex concepts.
  5. Practice, practice, practice. Similar to regular, repeated retrieval, practice is crucial. The more you practise a skill the better you become at it. This is as true in Science, Languages, History or English as it is in sport or learning a musical instrument. My students now spend much more time in lessons practising using the knowledge and skills I have taught them – recall of key facts, writing explanations for complex concepts, completing problems, applying and rearranging equations, writing methods for practical procedures. SLOP booklets from Rosalind Walker and Adam Boxer and guided practice for Physics and Chemistry equations (@MrKhairi_) or the EVERY method (@DrChillimamp) are excellent resources for Science which others have generously shared.
  6. Efficient, effective feedback. The change I have made, and encouraged across my department, which seemed most counterintuitive was to reduce written marking in students’ books. I now give more whole-class feedback focused on common errors and misconceptions. Most commonly this involves revisiting an area which students have misunderstood or found more challenging (identified by reading through their books) and giving students an opportunity for further practice following a clear explanation or additional modelling of a method or expectation. The time I would have spent writing similar comments in each student’s book is now spent thinking about how to improve my explanations, address a misconception or in writing a set of questions to check understanding more thoroughly. Jo Facer, Niki Kaiser and Stuart Kime have written about aspects of this in more detail. 

This is by no means an exhaustive list of the impact that engaging with the evidence has had on my own practice. If you’re new to this world, as I was a year ago, the areas and links above are some excellent places to start exploring. This year I have rediscovered my love for teaching. There’s so much to read, so much to learn, so much to consider, so much I want to change. At times it feels overwhelming, but I do not want to go back. I’m thinking again and it’s enjoyable, it’s exciting. The what, why, when and how of so many aspects of education are questions which I will probably never fully know the answers to but I shall keep on asking them.

Learning to teach

Learning. The primary goal of teaching is that students should learn. But what is learning? What is the purpose of learning and education? If I can answer these questions a whole host of others appears on the horizon – What do I want my students to learn? What’s the best way to teach them? How will I know that they have learned what I want them to? These are a few of the questions which I have started to grapple with over the past year as my outlook on teaching has taken a significant shift and I have sought to embrace a more evidence informed approach. Here I give a brief outline of my teaching journey and how engaging with research has altered my trajectory, I hope for the better.

As a student at school, my preferred lessons were those when my teachers stood at the front, gave me the information I needed, instructed me in how to apply it and asked me to put it into practice. However, this mode of teaching was not encouraged when I became a teacher in 2011. A quick flick through the five lever arch files full of my teacher training ‘evidence’ quickly reveals the practices which pervaded the profession at that time – every lesson plan is annotated to show how learning styles would be catered for, I spent hours making differentiated worksheets and many activities were student led involving ‘discovery learning’ and lots of group work. Although I had disliked being taught in these ways myself, I embraced them, presuming that the experts with experience of teaching knew better than I did. After all, the majority of people were less introverted than my teenage self, surely most of my students would enjoy all these interactive, discovery based activities? I bought into the belief that the most important thing was to engage my students with a variety of activities to keep them interested whatever their preferred learning style. I was persuaded that this was the secret to minimising disruptive behaviour. I fell into the trap of believing that if I sat students in rows and taught them good science from the front of the classroom, my lessons would be boring and behaviour would be poor.

Explicit instruction combined with lots of practice was the way I learned best. Sadly, only a small portion of my education was delivered in this way, for which I lay no blame at the door of those who taught me, they were doing what they believed to be best. I passed through the education system at a time when discovery and project based learning and “doing the Romans” (Sherrington, 2018) were vogue. Although I would be considered to have achieved highly and to be well educated, I have often felt to lack the breadth and depth of knowledge that I would like to possess. I don’t have automaticity of basic factual knowledge such as my times tables. I can’t tell you the dates of, or people involved in more than a very few major historical events and have little idea of the broader context and historical narrative in which they sit. My knowledge of languages, the Arts and literature is quite limited. Even as a Science teacher, I don’t have the stories behind the great scientific discoveries at my fingertips to pass onto the students I teach.

The education I received accomplished its purpose in preparing me well to succeed in the eyes of society, but I look back and feel that I could have learned so much more. I was fortunate to have parents who did their best to plug this gap and enrich my cultural experience. I grew up in a house full of books, we often visited museums and historical sites and my dad sometimes read poetry to us after dinner on family holidays (I definitely can’t claim to have appreciated this at the time)! In spite of this I lack a depth and breadth in my knowledge, even of those subjects I particularly enjoyed, which would probably not have made a difference to the path I have taken, but would have enriched my experience as I walk that path in ways which are difficult to put into words. When it is said that, “the purpose of education is to prepare people for life, equipping them with the knowledge and skills to contribute to a thriving society” (Welcome Trust, 2016), this is true but reflects a sadly narrow and utilitarian view of what education could be. Do we really want our young people to learn only what is practically useful? (Newmark, 2019).

I have become convinced that all students are entitled to a certain, although not necessarily constant or uniform, body of knowledge (Young, 2014), and that the primary purpose of a school is to induct them into this knowledge. This is why the recent move towards a more knowledge-rich curriculum, combined with the rise in profile of evidence informed practice in teaching has caught my imagination as I have started to explore this field over the past year. My teaching practice had already made a gradual shift towards more explicit instruction, but the guilty voice in my mind wouldn’t go away. Occasionally I would plan a ‘discovery’ lesson to muffle it for a while. Learning more about research and the evidence for good teaching has given me the courage to speak out about my convictions and rethink the way that I was taught to teach. The teaching profession is starting to regain a degree of intellectual rigour, engaging in the conversation regarding what we should be teaching and the best way to accomplish that aim. The grass-roots movements to spread the word and motivate others are exciting and encouraging.

Since reading Why Don’t Students Like School? (Willingham, 2010) and The Learning Rainforest (Sherrington, 2017), joining the Chartered College, discovering the world of EduTwitter, and the #CogSciSci group, my thoughts on the role of cognitive science, curriculum content and design, assessment, best practice in science teaching and many other areas have been changing. I have altered my classroom practice and I hope my students will reap the benefits. I have already written about how I’ve used knowledge organisers and hope to share more about the impact of engaging with research on my practice as a classroom teacher and Head of Science. I’m no expert, but perhaps my thoughts and experiences might be of help to others on a similar journey. In the meanwhile I will endeavour to give all my students the best possible education by continuing to learn to teach.


Sherrington (2018) – https://teacherhead.com/2018/06/06/what-is-a-knowledge-rich-curriculum-principle-and-practice/ (accessed 05/07/2019)

Welcome Trust (2016) – https://wellcome.ac.uk/sites/default/files/wtp060177.pdf(accessed 21/06/2019)

Newmark (2019) – https://bennewmark.wordpress.com/2019/02/10/why-teach/(accessed 21/06/2019)

Young (2014) – Knowledge and the Future School. Bloomsbury.

Willingham (2010) – Why Don’t Students Like School? Jossey Bass.

Sherrington (2017) – The Learning Rainforest. John Catt Educational Ltd.

Knowledge Organisers – the nuts and bolts but not the structure (2)

Part 2 – Building the structure

In a previous post I outlined my view of knowledge organisers and their place in schema building, focusing on how I had found them useful as a starting point in considering the knowledge architecture of a topic before beginning to teach it. In this post I will outline how I have used them with students and how I plan to adapt my practice in the future.

Teaching with knowledge organisers

Following reading a lot about knowledge organisers, I decided to use them with some of my classes this year. A brief summary of how I used them follows. I…

  • …spent time considering the architecture of knowledge which contained the information on the knowledge organiser (see previous post).
  • …handed out a knowledge organiser at the start of each topic and instructed students to learn it as an on-going home learning task and encouraged them to refer to it during lessons.
  • …wrote key questions and answers based on the content of the knowledge organiser which I shared with students and used as the basis of low stakes retrieval testing at the start of each lesson.
  • …spent at least 10 minutes at the start of every lesson on testing this knowledge and questioning students to further develop knowledge and build links between current and prior learning.
  • …spent a lot of time in lessons developing students’ understanding and application of and the links between the key ideas set out in the knowledge organisers.
  • …gave students shed loads of practice (SLOP) (Boxer, 2017) and assessed their understanding regularly through written work and lots and lots of questioning.

Was it worth the effort of putting these resources together and changing the way that I taught these classes?  I would answer with an emphatic “yes”. My students are much more confident in their recall of key definitions and facts than previous classes which has enabled me to spend more lesson time supporting them in developing the complex schema – the explanations, applications, links and hinterland knowledge which brings a greater richness to their experience of the subject and the world.

Was it knowledge organisers that made the difference? Probably not. They were the catalyst which took me back to considering the structure of knowledge, largely inspired by engaging with the #CogsSciSci group, reading various books, and CPD provided by my school. This thought process led to me developing key questions, got me thinking about cognitive science and the benefits of retrieval practice and SLOP. It’s the combination of these things which have made a difference to my students.

There are definite pitfalls with knowledge organisers, the main one being that students see them as a revision summary of all they need to know. A few of my students have fallen into this trap and therefore struggled in topic tests and end of year exams – they knew the facts, but lacked the broader knowledge which enabled them to explain and apply these. They were exposed to this knowledge in lessons but saw the knowledge organiser as what they needed to know. It is so important to explain to our students what a knowledge organiser is (and is not).

I will keep on using knowledge organisers. My department are developing them, along with core questions, for our KS3 curriculum and we will all be using them from September. I will however be doing, and encouraging my department to do the following to ensure maximum benefit from the work we’ve put into writing them:

  • Explain clearly to students what the knowledge organiser is and is not.
  • Explain and model to students how the knowledge organiser should be used.
  • Use the knowledge organiser in your planning – think about the kernels of knowledge it contains, the links between them, what needs elaborating, explaining, modelling, practising, and give careful thought to how you will do this with the students in your class.
  • Use the knowledge organiser in conjunction with core questions and regular, low stakes retrieval testing.
  • Ensure plenty of lesson time is spent on questioning, explaining, modelling and students practising.

A set of knowledge organisers is not a curriculum. A student who can recite their knowledge organiser does not necessarily have a secure understanding of the topic. The teacher is the architect, the knowledge organiser is a starting point which contains some of the nuts and bolts required to construct the full structure. Developing the expert schema in the minds of our students is the art of teaching.


Boxer 2017 – https://achemicalorthodoxy.wordpress.com/2017/05/22/chemistry-mastery-books/

Knowledge Organisers – the nuts and bolts but not the structure (1)

Part 1 – Architects of knowledge

Knowledge organisers have become ubiquitous. Teachers are putting a lot of time and effort into creating them. I have been writing knowledge organisers and my department are in the process of developing them for our KS3 curriculum. With so many knowledge organisers flying around I share my reflections as I come to the end of my first year of using them systematically in my teaching.

The concept of knowledge organisers is not new. I have used similar resources throughout my teaching career, mostly as a revision tool which I gave to students as we came towards an end of topic test. Over the past 18 months, as I have read more about the curriculum, powerful knowledge (Young, 2014) and cognitive science, and considered how these are applicable in my own teaching practice and in leading my department, I have realised that the knowledge organiser can be a much more powerful tool than a simple revision checklist. In this post I will outline how I view knowledge organisers as a tool to support and scaffold the building of a rich schema (the structure of knowledge and understanding), in the minds of students. A second post will then describe how I have used them with students, the pitfalls I have encountered and how I will adapt my practice in the future.

As teachers, we are seeking to build the schema of a subject in the minds of our students. The schema has been helpfully represented as dots (the things you want students to know) with lines (the connections) between them (Boxer, 2019). I have been considering how knowledge organisers fit into this model. Initially, I thought that the knowledge organiser provided the dots or ‘facts’, with the links between them being developed by the teacher in the classroom. The reality is much more complex.

A representation of the schema. In the second image, red sections represent knowledge which can be obtained through learning the knowledge organiser.

The knowledge organiser can provide students with knowledge of some facts and simple links between them. However, even in defining key words, which could be represented by dots, elaboration and explanation from an expert (the teacher) may be required for students to gain a full understanding of new vocabulary. In addition there is knowledge which is necessary for a working understanding, but which students will not acquire from memorising a knowledge organiser. Surrounding this necessary knowledge is a whole world of information which may not be necessary in understanding and applying the key concepts, but which will enrich their knowledge and understanding of the broader narrative of a discipline, this has been referred to as hinterland knowledge (Counsell, 2018). It is so important that we, as teachers, are clear about this in our own minds and that we communicate it to our students. Memorising the knowledge organiser is not the same as building the schema. It is easy for students to fall into this way of thinking.

To elaborate, a typical knowledge organiser that I use in Science (example shown) lists key vocabulary with definitions, has a summary of some key facts and perhaps some mathematical formulae or labelled diagrams. I use the term ‘knowledge organiser’ as it seems to commonly be applied, although I prefer to call it a ‘knowledge summary’ as documents like the example below do not necessarily ‘organise’ knowledge. Ruth Walker (2018) has written about this in more detail.

So how does this fit into the schema diagram? Considering a small portion of one Year 7 topic serves to illustrate the complexity of the situation. Take the example of the three non-contact forces – magnetic, electrostatic and gravitational. Given the knowledge organiser shown, students could learn the definitions of these terms and that they are linked together, but do they really understand what they mean? Careful questioning will be required to tease this out.  Some might then get as far as recognising that magnetic and electrostatic forces can be attractive or repulsive, whereas gravitational forces are always attractive. These are crucial facts and definitions and an automatic knowledge of them will support students in taking the next steps. However, this knowledge organiser will not be able to develop their understanding of examples of these forces, their ability to predict repulsion or attraction, a deeper grasp of the concept of a force field and how it is represented, or the factors affecting its strength. The richness of learning about the Earth’s magnetic field and its use in navigation or the complexities of living on the International Space Station in a situation of zero gravity would be missed if we see the knowledge organiser as the sum total of what students should know.

The most powerful thing that I have done with my ‘knowledge summaries’ is to use them as a starting point in my planning. They outline the key knowledge I wish to impart to my students. I construct a true knowledge organiser, largely for my own benefit, and often in my head, by considering the following questions:

  • How do the facts link together?
  • What will need additional explanation?
  • What areas will require students to practise?
  • What ‘hinterland’ knowledge would enrich students’ understanding and appreciation?
  • What misconceptions will I need to address?
  • Are there links to other topic areas which I should emphasise?

The example below is constructed from a small section of the example knowledge organiser above.

Thinking carefully about the structure of knowledge in this way is something which I had fallen out of the habit of doing. I don’t think I have mapped out knowledge so carefully since I was a trainee teacher. Doing so again, with the wealth of experience I have gained from eight years in the classroom was an eye opener. I noticed links and misconceptions which I hadn’t thought about before. I was able to recognise right at the start of my planning that certain aspects of a topic would require more time because they needed students to practise certain skills or contained particularly challenging concepts. As a result of carefully considering the architecture of knowledge in this way my teaching was better planned, more thorough and coherent.

The knowledge organiser provides the nuts and bolts which will enable students to build the structure of knowledge they need to move towards developing an expert schema. As teachers we are the architects and the builders of this structure and the knowledge organiser is a great place to start. Although my original plan in using knowledge organisers was to support my students (Part 2 will describe how I used them in this way) the greatest direct benefit came from the careful planning that I engaged in as a result of considering the architecture of knowledge, and thinking about how best to build this structure in the minds of my students.


Young (2014) – https://www.cambridgeassessment.org.uk/Images/166279-the-curriculum-and-the-entitlement-to-knowledge-prof-michael-young.pdf (accessed 18/6/2019)

Boxer (2019) – https://achemicalorthodoxy.wordpress.com/2019/03/26/what-to-do-after-a-mock-assessment-sampling-inferences-and-more/ (accessed 18/6/2019)

Counsell (2018) – https://thedignityofthethingblog.wordpress.com/2018/04/07/senior-curriculum-leadership-1-the-indirect-manifestation-of-knowledge-a-curriculum-as-narrative/ (accessed 17/6/2019)

Walker (2018) – https://rosalindwalker.wordpress.com/2018/11/03/knowledge-organisers-and-quiz-sheets/ (accessed 17/6/2019)