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)