Teaching-centred leadership in practice: a Professional Reading Group

Establishing a Professional Reading Group in your school can be one of the best things you can do to develop a shared understanding of what great teaching looks like. I discussed this as part of the Teaching-centred Leadership chapter of The Teaching Delusion.

In recent months, I have had a number of teachers and school leaders get in touch with stories about how their Professional Reading Group is going, or to ask for advice about running this. The purpose of this post is to share the latter.

Keep it light

The work of a Professional Reading Group is important, but being a part of it shouldn’t feel like a chore. People should want to be in this group. It is as important that they enjoy reading and discussion as much as it is that they learn from it. There’s no need to put out an agenda or to take minutes – that’s far too formal.

Focus on teaching

In theory, your Professional Reading Group could read anything, but my advice would be to keep the focus on teaching practice. If you’re looking for a steer, go to John Catt Educational – the volume and quality of the teaching-centred books they publish is superb: https://www.johncattbookshop.com

Invest in your staff

Staff shouldn’t have to buy their own books. Rather, schools should support staff by buying these for them. The principle of investing in staff to invest in students is paramount. Once staff are finished with their book, they can donate it into the school’s Professional Reading Library, for other staff to benefit from.

Keep it manageable

Teachers and school leaders are busy people. The reading they are doing for the Professional Reading Group will more than likely be in their own time. They will be doing this because they want to, not because they have to. But this doesn’t mean they want to spend whole evenings or weekends reading – they have a life beyond school! Therefore, keep the amount reading and the number of meetings manageable. My advice would be somewhere in the region of 20 pages once a fortnight.

Ask good questions

Your Professional Reading Group will need a Chair. This doesn’t have to be the most senior person in the group. In fact, it’s often better if it isn’t. Rather, it just needs to be someone who’s good at chairing. Their main job is to get discussion going and to make sure everyone gets a chance to participate. Good questions to ask tend to be ones like:

  • ‘What stood out for you as particularly interesting in this chapter?’
  • ‘What did you think about [X] on page [X}?’
  • ‘Was there anything that really made you pause and think?’
  • ‘Is there anything about your practice that you think will change as a result of reading this chapter?’

Share as much as you can

Do as much as you can to share learning from reading beyond the group. This will help to get others interested and facilitate wider learning. Talking about learning from reading at whole-staff and departmental meetings is a good way to do this. So too is setting up a ‘Learning From Reading Noticeboard’, to which staff can add notes summarising take-home messages.

The Teaching Delusion: Why Teaching In Our Schools Isn’t Good Enough (And How We Can Make It Better), published by John Catt Educational, is out now. Available at: https://amzn.to/335GFn3 and https://bit.ly/2XzQRne

The Capital of Australia

Asking questions is one of the most important things a teacher can do to help students learn and to check their learning. If you ask a student a question, it requires them to think. To give you an answer, they need to recall information. Their answer gives you feedback about what they know and understand, and what they don’t. You can then use this to give feedback to them, or to make teaching points to others that you might not have considered otherwise. Asking questions is a powerful formative teaching practice.

However, when you ask students you teach questions, some of them (perhaps many of them) will only think of partial answers, and some will not think of any answers at all. It can be very difficult to know what all students are thinking. What can we do about this?

The capital of Australia

Imagine you are teaching 30 students and you ask the question: ‘What is the capital of Australia?’

Imagine, first, that you ask this question and allow the shouting out of answers. A student shouts: ‘Sydney’, to which you respond, ‘No, it’s actually Canberra.’

What did that tell you? Very little, other than the fact that one student in the class didn’t know the correct answer (and you hope that they now do, because you just told them it – and everyone else, too, because they all listened to you telling that student the correct answer. Didn’t they?)

Did any other student in the class know the correct answer? If so, how many? Or did nobody in the class know the correct answer? If they didn’t, was everyone’s wrong answer the same – did they all think that the correct answer was Sydney? Or did some students think it was Melbourne? It would be useful for you, as the teacher of this class, to have answers to all of these questions. However, doing what you did – letting students shout out and then taking the first incorrect answer and correcting it for the student – didn’t let you find out any of that.

You asked the question, ‘What is the capital of Australia?’ because you thought it was an important or worthwhile question to ask. If you didn’t, you probably wouldn’t have asked it. But what was the purpose of asking it?

Were you about to start a topic on Australia and wanted to find out what students already knew about the country? Or had you taught a lesson about Australia the day before, which included teaching students the capital of Australia, and you wanted to check that this had been remembered the next day? Or had you taught a lesson about Australia six months ago and wanted to check that, six months on, students remembered the capital? All of these would be good reasons to ask the question, ‘What is the capital of Australia?’

It is unlikely that you asked the question because you wanted to check if just one student knew the correct answer. Rather, I imagine you wanted to get a feel for how many students knew the correct answer, and if one or more didn’t know it, what they thought it was, and to offer feedback designed to address their mistake. Ideally, I imagine that you wanted to check what everyone in the class thought the correct answer was.

When you asked the question, ‘What is the capital of Australia?’ to your class of 30 students, how many, do you believe, were thinking about an answer? Thirty? Fifteen? One? And how could you know that?

Let’s imagine that all 30 students were thinking about an answer, perhaps because, after posing the question, you gave the instruction: ‘I want everyone to think about an answer. I’ll give you 10 seconds.’ And then you stayed silent for 10 seconds, counting down in your head, while holding an assertive stance, casting your gaze around the room to convey to the students that you are watching and expecting everyone to be thinking. You then selected a student and asked: ‘Marnie, what did you think?’ Marnie said: ‘Melbourne’, to which you said, ‘No, it’s actually Canberra.’

Had everyone in the class thought about an answer to your question this time? I suspect more students would have tried to – and had time to – than if you had simply asked the question and then responded to the first answer that was shouted out. You built in ‘thinking time’ and you didn’t allow shouting out – you chose a student to answer the question. But how could you check that everyone had thought about an answer or what it was? This is where getting all students to write down an answer becomes very powerful.

Students don’t have to write down much – just a few words – but doing so gets them to think about their answer. It minimises the chance of students disengaging to think about something they watched on YouTube last night while they rely on a few of their keener peers to do the thinking instead. It also makes them commit to their answer – what they have written down will be what they were thinking. Putting it in writing removes the ambiguity – they’ve committed to what they wanted to say. Powerfully, it also lets you, as their teacher, check that they had thought of an answer, including whether or not it was the correct one. ‘I don’t know’ would be an appropriate answer, because this gives you information about what they do or don’t know.

If you get students to write down their answer on a piece of paper (perhaps in their jotter), this is better than not getting them to write something down at all. However, it poses challenges for you, as a teacher, to see what everyone has written, because the chances are that some of their handwriting will be quite small and, logistically, it is difficult for you to move around a room of 30 students to see what is written down on a piece of paper on every desk, particularly if you have given everyone a clear instruction that they have just 10 seconds to do this.

The solution to such challenges is the Show-me board (or mini whiteboard). If every student had been asked to write their answer on a Show-me board and hold it up for you to see, not only would everyone have been expected to think about the question you had asked, but you would also be able to see what everyone was thinking. If 20 students thought that the answer was Melbourne, 5 thought it was Canberra and 5 thought it was Sydney, the use of Show-me boards will let you know all of that relatively quickly, which is incredibly powerful.

Teaching in this way not only makes students’ thinking visible to you, but potentially to every other student in the room. If students wrote their answer on a Show-me board and held it up, you could start to discuss the range of answers you were seeing, using some of these to make points such as: ‘Oh, that’s a really interesting answer – please tell us more about that’, or ‘Ruben, do you mind me reading yours out? Thanks… Who agrees with Ruben? Does anyone disagree? Why?’ You might walk around the class and borrow a few Show-me boards with different answers on them and then hold these up one at a time, inviting comments from other students. For example, you might say, ‘I saw that a few of you wrote this…’ while holding up and reading out what was written. ‘What do we think about that?’ After some whole-class discussion, you might hold up the next board and repeat the process. Teaching in this way would help generate discussion, help students learn from one another, and help you give specific feedback, including the addressing of misconceptions and misunderstandings. You might conclude by saying something like, ‘Okay, well only five of you have got that right today – this is something that, as a class, we will need to come back to.’

Show-me boards offer a powerful solution to the problem of how we can get all students to think and make everyone’s thinking visible. For me, their use should be as integral to teaching and learning in classrooms as a jotter.

Taken from The Teaching Delusion: Why Teaching In Our Schools Isn’t Good Enough (And How We Can Make It Better). Published by John Catt Educational and available at: https://amzn.to/2JnKPOa

The Forgetting Pit

What is learning and how does it happen? These are key questions for anyone involved in education.

In The Teaching Delusion, as many authors have before me, I discuss learning in terms of long-term memory. However, in this blog post I would like to consider learning in a related but different way. I would like to consider learning in terms of a Forgetting Pit

Paying attention and thinking

We learn by paying attention to information and thinking about it. 

When we pay attention to information, it enters our working memory:

Working memory is where thinking happens. 

However, working memory is limited in terms of how much information it can hold and how long it can hold it. Accordingly, information doesn’t stay in working memory for long. Instead, it quickly moves into the Forgetting Pit:

The Forgetting Pit

The Forgetting Pit is an alternative way to think about long-term memory. 

Everything we pay attention to falls into the Forgetting Pit. However, not everything that goes into this pit is forgotten. Most of what we pay attention to is forgotten, but not everything. 

In general, it is a good thing that we forget information. If we remembered everything that we paid attention to, we’d quickly go mad! The job of the Forgetting Pit is an important one.

However, in teaching, it’s also a frustrating one. There are particular things that we want our students to learn but the Forgetting Pit makes this tricky. Understanding how the Forgetting Pit works is essential if we are to understand the teaching and learning process.

The Point of No Return

Information can be said to be ‘forgotten’ if it can’t be brought back out of the Forgetting Pit into working memory, despite prompts and reminders. 

The reason it can’t be brought out is because it has fallen too far down the pit to be retrieved. It has gone past the Point of No Return:

Most of the information we pay attention to falls past this point. However, not all of it does.

Sticky information

Some of the information we pay attention to sticks to the walls of the Forgetting Pit. This is learning. The better stuck to the wall something is, the better it is learned. Information which has been learned (that is, stuck to the wall) can be retrieved:

How easily retrieved information is depends on how far down the pit it has gone. The further down the pit something is, the more difficult it is to retrieve:

The tendency to forget

One of the laws of learning is that we tend to forget. 

With few exceptions, everything we have learned is moving down the Forgetting Pit. Being stuck to the wall doesn’t stop information from sliding down. The rate at which it slides isn’t the same for everything, but most information is sliding down the pit.

What this means is that we can learn something well – it can stick tightly to the walls – but over time, because it is sliding down, it is less easy to retrieve than it was. 

Eventually, many things that we had learned well and could once easily retrieve, have moved past the Point of No Return and are forgotten.

The rate of forgetting

How fast things move down the Forgetting Pit depends on various factors, including how well information has stuck to the wall (how ‘sticky’ it is) and whether or not it has attached to other information (which will stop it moving as quickly). This latter idea is often referred to as schema:

One of the goals of teaching is to ensure that information sticks to the walls of the Forgetting Pit strongly enough that movement down this pit is as slow as possible.

If we are to be successful in achieving this, we need to understand why information sticks to walls.

Why does information stick to walls?

Information sticks to the walls of the Forgetting Pit because of the coating it is given in working memory.

Information in itself doesn’t have a coating. The coating is added when we think about information in working memory. If you don’t think about it, it doesn’t get a coating. Information which doesn’t have a coating can’t stick to the walls of the Forgetting Pit. Accordingly, it will be quickly forgotten, falling past the Point of No Return.

Revisiting and retrieval

Information which has a coating can stick to the walls of the Forgetting Pit and can be retrieved. When we retrieve it, we bring it back into our working memory.

Every time information is brought back into our working memory, the stickier the coating on it becomes. This means that the more we ask students to think about particular information, the more likely it will acquire the coating necessary to stick to the walls strongly. In other words, the better we will learn it.

Getting students to actively retrieve information (‘retrieval practice’, such as via closed-book quizzing in class or self-quizzing at home) results in a stickier coating than if students passively revisit information, for example, by re-reading it in a textbook or re-writing notes. When this retrieval is spaced out over periods of time, for example, using Daily, Weekly and Monthly Review, the coating gets stickier and stickier.

Similarly, if information we have stuck to the walls in the Forgetting Pit can be retrieved and linked to new information we encounter, for example, by creating a concept map, this new information is less likely to fall down the pit and be forgotten. It benefits from the stickiness of the information we already had.

The ‘Easily Retrieved Area’

As teachers, the area of the Forgetting Pit we want all learning to be in is the ‘Easily Retrieved Area’. This is the area from which students can retrieve things quickly, as and when they need to: 

Examples of things which most people have in the Easily Retrieved Area are:

  • Their name
  • The name of the Prime Minister
  • The answer to the sum: 2 x 10

However, normally, things don’t stick to the walls in this area the first time they are encountered. Some things do, but most things don’t. Instead, they tend to either stick to the walls further down the pit – meaning they can be retrieved, but not as easily – or don’t stick to the walls at all – meaning they are forgotten. 

A key question for all teachers to consider is: how do we get things to stick to the walls in the Easily Retrieved Area? 


Ultimately, learning is only worthwhile if we are able to use it. The catch-all term for this is ‘performance’. Performance is the application of learning. It is learning in action. 

Examples of performance include:

  • Naming the capital of Australia
  • Explaining the causes the Russian Revolution
  • Playing David Bowie’s Life on Mars? on the piano
  • Drawing a portrait
  • Solving an unseen mathematics problem
  • Making sense of what you are reading

In order to perform any task, we need to retrieve relevant information from the Forgetting Pit:

The more relevant information we have in the Easily Retrieved Area, the better our performance is likely to be. We have to work harder to retrieve information which is stuck to the walls further down the pit, which tends to negatively affect our performance. 

To perform as best we can, we need to be able to retrieve relevant information easily. As teachers, we don’t just want information to stick to the walls anywhere in the Forgetting Pit – our aim should be to get it to stick to the walls in the Easily Retrieved Area. 

Short-term vs long-term learning

Performance helps to make learning visible and provides evidence of what has been learned. However, as we know from our discussion of the Forgetting Pit, learning isn’t a fixed entity. Things we have learned – that is, things that have stuck to the walls of the Forgetting Pit before the Point of No Return – don’t stay learned. Movement down the pit is inevitable.

This means that while performance which draws on newly acquired learning can serve as evidence of short-term learning, it can’t be used as evidence of long-term learning. Things that were in the Easily Retrieved Area at the end of a lesson won’t necessarily be there when students arrive at the next lesson.

For example, imagine you are teaching students about ionic bonds. If, at the end of the lesson, students can correctly answer a series of questions assessing this knowledge, this would be an example of performance based on short-term learning. It is important to assess this, because it helps you to see whether or not the correct information has stuck to the walls of the Forgetting Pit.

However, being able to answer these correctly at this stage in the learning process only tells you about short-term term learning. If students can still do this a week later, this is performance based on longer-term learning. Being able to do this then would tell you that there hadn’t been much movement down the Forgetting Pit, which would be a good thing.

But will students still be able to correctly answer similar questions in six months’ time, in a year’s time or in six years’ time? The answer depends on how successful the Forgetting Pit has been at doing its job and how successful you and your students have been at stopping it from doing this.

Great teaching is all about trying to stop the Forgetting Pit from doing its job with the things that matter most.

The Teaching Delusion: Why Teaching In Our Schools Isn’t Good Enough (And How We Can Make It Better), published by John Catt Educational, is out now. Available at: https://amzn.to/335GFn3 and https://bit.ly/2XzQRne

A Five Minute Guide To… Feedback

Most of the schools I work with identify ‘feedback’ as something they want to improve. However, there are two common mistakes that they make when thinking about this:

  1. They think about feedback as being ‘a thing’ in itself, rather than being a continuous, integral feature of the teaching-learning process.
  2. They think about feedback as something which teachers give to students (or students give to other students) – which it is – but forget to think about the importance of the teacher getting feedback from studentsin response to evidence of learning.

This ‘Five Minute Guide’ has been written to support teachers and school leaders to improve the use of feedback.

Why give feedback?

Feedback is fundamental to learning. It has three purposes: 

  1. To help people understand how they are doing 
  2. To highlight ways they could improve 
  3. To motivate and encourage 

It achieves these three by identifying clear strengthsareas for improvement and next steps

Giving feedback 

Feedback can be given to students in a variety of ways. These include: 

  • Giving a piece of work a score or a grade 
  • Using a coding system on a piece of work, such as green/amber/red 
  • Writing comments on a piece of work 
  • Having a conversation with individuals or groups 
  • Pointing things out as part of the teaching-learning process 

While there is a place for all of them, I would argue that the last two are generally the best. They involve the teacher talking to students. Not only can this give students the clearest feedback, it is usually the smartest use of time. Feedback doesn’t need to be lengthy – it needs to valuable. 

A misconception that teachers often have about feedback is that it is only given in response to assessed tasks, rather than being an integral feature of lessons. While feedback in response to assessed tasks is important, more important is immediate and continuous feedback as part of direct-interactive teaching and formative assessment during lessons. 

Students are asked a question; based on their answer, they are given feedback. Students are asked to write something on their Show-me board; based on what they write, they are given feedback. Students are asked to discuss something; based on what they are saying, they are given feedback. Students are practising questions; after a quick check from the teacher, they are given feedback. 

The value that feedback has to students depends on its quality. But what makes high-quality feedback? 

High-quality feedback 

If students are to understand how they are doing and how to improve, they need to be clear about what they are learning and what success looks like. Accordingly, learning intentions and success criteria are integral to feedback. Of these, it is success criteria which are most important. 

Ensuring feedback is linked to success criteria helps to ensure that it is more than just a set of qualitative statements. While it is important for students to be clear about quality, feedback should always be about more than that. In high-quality feedback, the word ‘because’ keeps coming up: 

  • ‘This is good because…’
  • ‘This isn’t quite right because…’
  • ‘I really like this because…’

The ‘because’ should link to success criteria. 

Regardless of whether feedback is coming from the teacher or from a peer, it should always link to success criteria. The clearer that teachers and students are about success criteria, the clearer their feedback will be. 

High-quality feedback is specific feedback: 

  • This is what was good; this is what wasn’t.’ 
  • ‘To improve, you need to do this.’ 
  • This could make that better.’ 
  • ‘You’ve nearly got that. There’s just one mistake, and it’s with this.
  • ‘That is good. What you should focus on next is this.’ 

There is no ambiguity and there are no grey areas. Everything is specific: success criteria, strengths, areas for improvement and next steps. 

The ability of teachers to be specific and clear in their feedback is dependent on their pedagogical subject knowledge. The better a teacher knows and understands their subject, including areas in which students typically struggle, where common mistakes tend to be made, what common misconceptions are and how students generally think about particular concepts, the better equipped they are to give high-quality feedback. 

Coaching approaches 

Sometimes there can be value in using coaching approaches to give feedback. Rather than jumping to tell students, ‘This was good’; ‘This wasn’t so good’; ‘Improve this’, the teacher points things out and asks questions in a way designed to help them generate their own feedback. 

For example, if a teacher looks at a Show-me board on which a student was asked to write three examples of metaphors, the teacher might say, ‘Two of those are right but one is wrong. Which one do you think is wrong? Why?’ So long as a student isn’t left in the dark for too long (which will frustrate them and switch them off), coaching approaches can be a useful means to get students to think and come up with their own feedback. 

Check for understanding 

Once feedback has been given, teachers need to check it has been understood. One way to do this is by giving students an opportunity to act on it. This might be immediate (‘Right, go and take 10 minutes to have a go at that’) or require more time (‘I’d like you to have another go at that by Wednesday and bring it back for me to have a look at with you.’) 

Another way would be for the teacher to ask a student to explain back what has just been explained to them (‘Okay, so you’re telling me that you understand this. That’s good. I’d like you to explain back to me what I have just said.’) Doing so is putting the student in the position of teacher and works on the principle that to be able to explain something to someone, you have to understand it. 

Motivating and encouraging students 

A key purpose of feedback is to motivate and encourage. All feedback is motivating and encouraging, isn’t it? No. In fact, feedback has the potential to be the opposite. When that happens, it is usually because it: 

  • Is unclear 
  • Is overly negative 
  • Is always negative 
  • Is given in a way which comes across as unsupportive 

Clearly, no teacher aims to demotivate and discourage students. To avoid doing so, teachers need to make feedback as specific and positive as they can. Where they need to highlight areas for improvement, they should do so in a supportive way. Typically, this will mean starting with positives and then highlighting negatives. 

Students need to believe that their teachers are doing their very best to support them. The more they believe this, the more willing they will be to receive and act upon negative feedback. Feedback and support go hand in hand.

The Teaching Delusion: Why Teaching In Our Schools Isn’t Good Enough (And How We Can Make It Better), published by John Catt Educational, is out now. Available at: https://amzn.to/335GFn3 and https://bit.ly/2XzQRne

The ‘Perfect Lesson Rainbow’

Think about the last lesson you taught. Was it a successful lesson? Why do think that?

Ask a random room of teachers if these are important questions to think about – most will say ‘yes’. Ask the same room of teachers what their answer to the second question is and you are unlikely to get the same consensus. Some will say, ‘Because I got through everything that I’d planned to get through’, others that, ‘All of the students seemed to enjoy the lesson,’ and some that, ‘All of the students were well behaved and did what I asked them to do.’ Such things being the case, do they equate to a successful lesson?

Your answer will depend on what your criteria for success is. For me, the key measure of success for any lesson is the extent to which all students are learning. In a perfect lesson, all students would learn everything that was planned. However, I am yet to teach that lesson. And I am yet to watch any other teacher teach it either. It is the ‘perfect lesson rainbow’ that we are all chasing. While we are unlikely to ever reach it, it is the pursuit which is important.

If you accept that ‘all students learning everything that was planned’ is the key measure of success for a lesson, does the teacher ‘getting through everything’ mean that the lesson was successful? What about if all the students enjoyed the lesson, or if all the students were well behaved and did what they were asked? The answer to all of these is: ‘not necessarily’.

Teaching is full of harsh realities which get in the way of our rainbow chasing. These include that:

  • ‘Being busy’ and ‘learning’ are not the same thing – just because students are paying attention or doing what you have asked them to do doesn’t mean that they are learning 
  • A ‘teaching-learning gap’ is inevitable – just because content has been ‘covered’ doesn’t mean that it has been learned, regardless of how good the explanations, presentations or demonstrations were
  • The learning of one or two students tells us nothing about the learning of everyone else  – just because one or two students have given correct answers to questions we directed at them doesn’t mean that others in the class could do this too 

However, while it is true that such realities make the pursuit of the ‘perfect lesson rainbow’ challenging, they can all be overcome. To help do so, keep three principles at the forefront of your mind whilst planning and teaching lessons:

1. Engage students in activities which get them to think hard*, rather than activities which keep them busyAnswering questions, discussing, critiquing and evaluating are examples of activities which can get students to think hard. Copying notes and listening to extended exposition (in the absence of teacher-student interaction) are examples of activities which keep students busy.

2. Infuse explanations, presentations and demonstrates with questions. As well as getting students to think hard, asking questions helps to (1) check for understanding, (2) check students are paying attention, (3) break-up teacher talk time, (4) get students to learn from each other, (5) drill-down into deeper student thinking.

3. At every opportunity, use strategies to make all students’ learning visible. Asking a question to one student will make the learning of one student visible; asking a question to a whole class and then choosing one student to answer will make the learning of one student visible; asking a question to the whole class, choosing one student to answer and then asking other students what they think about that answer, if they agree or disagree with it and why, will make the learning of a few students visible; asking a question to the whole class and asking everyone to write an answer on their Show-me board will make the learning of all students’ learning visible.

The more your teaching is informed by these principles, the closer to the ‘perfect lesson rainbow’ it will get.

The Teaching Delusion: Why Teaching In Our Schools Isn’t Good Enough (And How We Can Make It Better), published by John Catt Educational, is out now. Available at: https://amzn.to/335GFn3 and https://bit.ly/2XzQRne

*Robert Coe has suggested that students ‘thinking hard’ is useful proxy for learning: https://www.ibo.org/globalassets/events/aem/conferences/2015/robert-coe.pdf

The Teaching-Learning Gap

Education is full of ‘gaps’. People often talk about the ‘attainment gap’ or the ‘achievement gap’. However, the most important gap for teachers and school leaders to be thinking about is the ‘teaching-learning gap‘.

What is taught is not necessarily learned. In fact, what is taught usually isn’t learned, at least not straight away or as well as it needs to be. The best teacher presentation, explanation or demonstration in the world does not necessarily lead to the student learning we are aiming for. Such things might lead to some student learning or to the learning of some students, but is that good enough? Do high-quality presentations, explanations or demonstrations equal high-quality teaching? I would argue that no, they don’t, at least not in themselves. High-quality presentations, explanations and demonstrations are features of high-quality teaching, but high-quality teaching is about a lot more than this. High-quality teaching involves frequent checks for student learning. It is teaching which focuses on the teaching-learning gap.

As teachers, we need to be relentless in measuring the gap between what is taught and what is learned, and on closing this, so that what is taught is learned. It isn’t enough for us to think that learning has happened – we need to know that it has. We can know this if we generate evidence of this. The key to doing so is assessment. Assessment bridges the teaching-learning gap:

‘Assessment’ does not necessarily mean tests and marking (although it can mean these things). Assessment is about much more than this. Really, ‘assessment’ should be thought about as ‘check‘ or ‘find out‘. Tests can, and should, be used to check student learning, but they are but one small part of a broader assessment spectrum.

When you ask students questions, you can check their learning. When you get them to write or draw something on a Show-me board, you can check their learning. When you ask them to ‘chat to a partner’ and listen to what they are saying, you can check their learning. When you get them to practise something, you can check their learning. When you give them short quizzes, you can check their learning. All of these activities are assessment activities. If you use them to get information about student learning, they are formative assessment activities. The same is true if you use them to give feedback to students. Minute-by-minute checking of student learning is integral to high-quality teaching:

High-quality teaching isn’t just about ‘covering’ content through high-quality explanations, presentations and demonstrations. High-quality teaching involves minute-by-minute checking (purple arrows) to generate evidence that what is being taught is being learned. We can do this in variety of ways, including by asking students questions, using Show-me boards, getting students to ‘chat to a partner’ and making use of in-class quizzes.

As important as checking student learning while content is being taught is checking student learning once content has been taught. Use of Exit Tickets towards the ends of lessons allows you to do this. So too does starting a lesson with Daily Review, or ending a week with Weekly Review. Setting frequent retrieval practice homework also allows you to do this. Lesson-by-lesson checking of this kind can be used to assess student learning over a broader body of content:

In a drive to ensure that what is taught is learned, minute-by-minute checking (purple arrows) should be complemented by lesson-by-lesson checking (orange arrows), for example, by use of Daily and Weekly Review, and Exit Tickets.

The more you use assessment in this way, the more you can check the size of the teaching-learning gap, and the better placed you are to do something about it. Monthly Review and End-of-topic tests also support this, assessing student learning over an even broader content range:

The most effective way to measure and address the ‘teaching-learning gap’ is to ensure that assessment (checking) is taking place minute-by-minute (purple arrows), lesson-by-lesson (orange arrows) and over longer periods of time (green arrow), for example, by use of Monthly Review and End-of-topic tests.

If you are interested in making your teaching better, focus on the teaching-learning gap. Doing so will improve your teaching and, crucially, improve student learning. A focus on the teaching-learning gap will help to close it.

The Teaching Delusion: Why Teaching In Our Schools Isn’t Good Enough (And How We Can Make It Better), published by John Catt Educational, is out now. Available at: https://amzn.to/335GFn3 and https://bit.ly/2XzQRne

A Five Minute Guide To… Learning Intentions & Success Criteria

Teachers across the country are tying themselves in knots with learning intentions and success criteria. Some are using them well; some are not. Some aren’t using them at all.

So why isn’t everyone using them and using them well? A significant factor it is because many teachers are unsure about what these should look like. This Five Minute Guide aims to address that.

Learning Intentions

Learning intentions are statements which summarise the purpose of a lesson in terms of learning. A useful acronym is WALT: ‘What we Are Learning Today’.

In writing them, it is usually useful to include the terms ‘know’, ‘understand’ or ‘be able to’, which helps communicate that the learning will relate to knowledge, understanding or skills, respectively.

An example might be:

We are learning about the structure of an atom, specifically to know about:

  • The sub-atomic particles which make up atoms

Over the course of several lessons, the class will be learning about the structure of an atom. For that reason, this statement will appear as part of the learning intention in lessons which follow. In this particular lesson, the specific focus is on the sub-atomic particles which make up atoms. The learning intention for the next lesson two lessons might be:

We are learning about the structure of an atom, specifically to understand:

  • Nuclide notation
  • The electron arrangements of the first 20 elements

Because every lesson is about learning, every lesson should have a clear learning intention, whether this be for students to learn something new, to consolidate their learning (through practice or revision) or to demonstrate their learning. 

Learning intentions should make clear what students will be learning about, not how this learning will be achieved, that is, to the activities and tasks of the lesson. For example, ‘Complete all of the questions on page 45 of your textbook’ is not a learning intention – it is a statement about an activity. Learning intentions should be about what is to be learned.

Communicating learning intentions

It is important that learning intentions are clearly communicated with students. Good practice is to do this both verbally and visually. However, saying this is very different from saying that students need to copy down the learning intentions (and success criteria) for lessons. Some schools insist that teachers get students to do that, but students learn nothing from doing so and it just wastes valuable learning time. 

Revisiting learning intentions

It can be useful to revisit learning intentions during lessons, reminding students of the learning focus. By the end of the lesson, something should have changed: students should know something that they didn’t before, they should be able to do something that they couldn’t before, or they should have improved at something. Every lesson should impact on learning; every lesson should count. 

Success Criteria

Success criteria relate to the evidence you are looking for to determine if students have learned what you intended. A useful acronym is WILF: ‘What I am Looking For’.

Success criteria can take different forms, including:

  • ‘I can…’ statements
  • Key features

The principal purpose of success criteria is to support assessment and feedback. When assessing learning, it isn’t enough for a teacher to ask, ‘Have you learned this?’ and then just to accept ‘yes’ as an answer. There needs to be evidence of learning; students need to prove it. Success criteria can make clear what that evidence should be. In this way, success criteria become tools to support teacher assessment, peer assessment and self-assessment. Without being clear about what you are looking for, meaningful assessment and feedback is not possible.

‘I can…’ statements

When success criteria are written as ‘I can…’ statements, they include verbs which make clear the evidence required to demonstrate learning. Rather than being about ‘knowing’, ‘understanding’ or ‘being able to’ – which is the language of learning intentions – they should be about what you are looking for in order for students to demonstrate that they have learned what was intended. 

If students can ‘state’, ‘write’, ‘describe’, ‘explain’ or ‘draw’, this can evidence learning. Saying that ‘I know’, ‘I understand’ or ‘I am able to’ doesn’t evidence learning. While it might be true, it isn’t evidence. Success criteria should make clear what evidence of learning needs to be produced. 

To appreciate this, consider the learning intention used earlier:

We are learning about the structure of an atom, specifically to know about:

  • The sub-atomic particles which make up atoms

Possible success criteria are:

  1. I can draw a labelled diagram of an atom, showing the arrangement of the three sub-atomic particles which make it up
  2. I can state the charge of each of the sub-atomic particles
  3. I can state the mass of each of the sub-atomic particles

Occasionally, I hear people argue that success criteria shouldn’t be quantified. For example, if success criteria relate to being able to identify advantages and disadvantages of something, teachers shouldn’t specify how manyadvantages and disadvantages. The rationale is that, by quantifying, you limit student learning. However, I would argue that, if success criteria are going to be used to assess learning and to guide feedback, they need to be as specific as possible. Sometimes, this will mean quantifying them. The way to get around any issue of ‘limiting learning’ is to include the phrase ‘at least’ in front of the quantity (for example, ‘I can identify at least two advantages and two disadvantages of…’)

Key features

Sometimes, rather than writing success criteria as ‘I can’ statements, they are better written as ‘key features’. This tends to be when they relate to ‘Be able to…’ learning intentions. For example, a learning intention might be:

  • Be able to present data in a table

Success criteria could be that:

  • It has two columns 
  • Each column has an appropriate heading 
  • Each heading has correct units 
  • The data has been entered correctly 
  • It has been drawn with a ruler 

Confusing learning intentions and success criteria

A common mistake I see teachers make is that they confuse learning intentions and success criteria. Below is an example of a learning intention which does this:

  • Be able to define and describe ‘deforestation’

I see this sort of learning intention quite often. In writing it, the teacher has confused the learning (which relates to deforestation) with the evidence students need to produce to demonstrate their learning. A far better learning intention would be:

  • Understand what ‘deforestation’ is

This is focused on learning.

Possible success criteria could be:

  • I can write a definition for ‘deforestation’
  • I can describe three causes of deforestation

These are focused on evidence of learning. In checking that students understand what deforestation is, the teacher would be looking to see evidence relating to each success criterion.

Taken from The Teaching Delusion: Why Teaching In Our Schools Isn’t Good Enough (And How We Can Make It Better), published by John Catt Educational. Available at: https://amzn.to/335GFn3 and https://bit.ly/2XzQRne

5 Quick Wins to Help Transform Your Teaching

1. Use Show-me boards in every lesson

2. Start lessons with Daily Review

3. End lessons with Exit Tickets

4. Say ‘Everyone think about that’ and ‘Chat to a partner’ after you ask questions

5. Build Active Assessment Activities into instruction


Use Show-me boards in every lesson

Show-me boards should be as integral to lessons as jotters. Their use:

  • Makes every student commit to an answer to every question
  • Makes every student’s thinking visible to the teacher
  • Builds thinking time into questioning (because students can think as they are writing)
  • Removes ‘rabbit in the headlight’ moments (whereby students freeze when they are asked questions) and helps address the embarrassment/shyness that some students experience when answering out-loud
  • Helps the teacher to see where there are common areas of strength and weakness in the class, supporting them to make whole-class teaching points
  • Helps teachers to home-in on particular aspects of individual answers, highlighting strengths and areas to improve

Start lessons with Daily Review

Daily Review‘ is where a lesson starts with a short recall (retrieval) quiz. Students are asked to recall knowledge from recent lessons (perhaps yesterday’s lesson, or the one the day before) and/or less recent lessons (perhaps a lesson from last term or last month).

There are two key benefits to teaching and learning:

  1. The teacher can find out what students have learned (or not). Using the information they get from Daily Review, they can give whole-class feedback and/or adjust their teaching to address any issues.
  2. Student learning is improved, because the act of recalling information strengthens the memory of it.

End lessons with Exit Tickets

Exit Tickets‘ are Post-it notes which students complete towards the end of a lesson. Rather than allowing students to ‘self-report’ learning (“Did everyone understand this?” or “Use green/amber/red to indicate how well you could do this”), the teacher asks students to write down specific things which prove whether or not students have learned what they were supposed to.

So, for example, if a success criterion is to be able to write a definition for something, an Exit Ticket would be used to find out if students can do this. If students are being taught how to solve a particular type of problem, an Exit Ticket would be used to check who can do this and who can’t.

Used in this way, Exit Tickets provide invaluable formative information to the teacher about the extent to which what has been taught has been learned.

Say ‘Everyone think about that’ and ‘Chat to a partner’ after you ask questions

When teachers ask questions, they want every student to be thinking about these. One, two or a few students isn’t good enough – everyone needs to be thinking. Making this expectation clear to students by saying, ‘Everyone think about that‘ supports this. Similarly, asking students to ‘Chat to a partner‘ for 30 seconds, a minute or a few minutes helps to get everyone to think. It also supports students to learn from each other.

Build Active Assessment Activities into instruction

Students are passive when they are aren’t thinking; they are active when they are thinking. In great teaching, we are aiming for all students to be active in their learning. This means that we are aiming to get all students to think. This is what Active Assessment Activities are all about. They include:

  • True or false
  • Odd one out
  • Deliberate mistakes
  • Multiple choice questions

The Teaching Delusion: Why Teaching In Our Schools Isn’t Good Enough (And How We Can Make It Better), published by John Catt Educational, is out now. Available at: https://amzn.to/335GFn3 and https://bit.ly/2XzQRne