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/