Assessing for learning needn’t be signposted by explicit formative tasks. Formative assessment can be implicitly woven into your teaching, and this can be achieved by using continuous retrieval practice. *

Asking questions in class/lectures/tutorials is a form of retrieval practice. The questions actively force the brain to try to recall the knowledge, and since understanding is memory in disguise, this strategy is an excellent way of assessing whether what you’ve taught your students has actually been learnt. Questions needn’t be verbal: they are any form of interaction that demands a student to fill in a gap.

Nuthall’s research found that for students to be able to understand a concept, they needed to be exposed to the complete set of information about the concept on at least 3 different occasions. This has enormous implications for how we teach, because in order for us to be able to assess for learning, we have to provide adequate opportunity for students to actually encode the information. Bearing in mind that attention is necessary to constitute a single exposure (as without actually attending to something it is impossible to encode it), and that sometimes student attention can waver (oh, is that a fly on my page), we may in fact need to increase the number of times we facilitate their exposure to necessary and important content. Continuous retrieval practice then not only challenges and thus strengthens the neural pathways the information is stored in, helping secure that content into the long term memory, but also provides another exposure of content to students who haven’t reached the magical number 3 yet.

Without using retrieval, the teacher can’t be sure the knowledge is secure in the student’s mind until they use a more formal assessment. But by this time, there could already be large gaps in the knowledge base that will take longer to unpick, and undoubtedly prevent the student being able to understand the next sequence in any sort of depth. This may manifest in the student who appears to be always struggling to keep up.

Assessment then should be seen as a continuous but incremental method of checking for learning, as depicted in this image:

The above graphic represents 5 units (U) of work in a course. The metaphor is that when a unit is taught, retrieval practice is embedded (looped back) into the unit before moving onto the next: the teacher explicitly focuses student attention on key aspects of the unit that are essential and requisite knowledge for the next. A summative assessment (S) measures student knowledge at the end of the unit. When the next unit is taught, the retrieval practice not only focuses on the content of the 2nd unit, but also the summative content of Unit 1, as the spiral for U2 overlaps at the S1 sector. The process continues, but crucially, each subsequent unit must draw from every unit previously taught.

Let’s look at this more closely:

Figure 1 represents the content taught in Unit 1. Figure 2 represents the retrieval process in Unit 1 with the loop feeding back into the shape.

Figure 3 represents the teaching of the second unit. But critically, the summative content (S1) from Unit 1 is very much a part of the sequence. That, as well as the new content of Unit 2, now forms part of the summative content (S2) for that unit.

This design is very deliberate. It stems from an awareness that the exposure to the new information must incrementally build on what the student already knows. Willingham (p6) suggests that when posed a problem, our brains search** for solutions by invoking previous knowledge about a topic or at least something related to it, both declarative and procedural. (This by the way, is why worked examples are so integral to effective teaching practice.) The thinking about the previous knowledge and how it fits with the current knowledge is how we begin to develop schema. Without this precise design of a sequence of learning, the schema can’t form, and this has large implications for teaching new content.

Of course, you won’t be able to test all of the content at each summative (S) point, but this is where spaced retrieval comes into play. Spaced retrieval not only helps you to plan to incorporate all the relevant content over the duration of the course, but perhaps more importantly, it helps students to learn the same amount of content without having to put in extra study. It’s simply a very efficient use of study time.

The process continues until all units have been taught (figure 5), with each new unit drawing from and incorporating previous learnt material as part of the new sequence. At the very end, a final summative test is given, but as you can probably deduce, it will be not that different from what has been happening all the way along. It may simply be a longer test. The likelihood of success in this final test/exam will be significantly higher as students have been given multiple opportunities to access the content over the course, facilitating the movement of knowledge into the long term memory, and very much reducing the enormous anxiety that exams can create, and the criticism of their validity.

Well this is OK in a classroom or a tutorial, but what happens when I have a lecture with more than 40 students I hear you ask? Can I still use this approach? That’s the topic of the next post

In the next post I will outline the ways formative assessment can be applied in HE

*I know that suggest we shouldn’t view retrieval as an assessment strategy, but rather as a learning tool. I think though that teaching is essentially broken into 3 parts: delivering content, assessing its understanding, and influencing emotional intelligence. I see every question we ask as a tool to assess and to inspire thinking.

**I am aware that the tangible processes I discuss are indeed metaphoric.

I’m Paul Moss. Follow me at @edmerger


In the previous post, I introduced the rationale for implementing a range of strategies to help students start strong in their University courses. The implications for failure extend further out than we might imagine, and can have severe effects on students and staff alike. In this post I introduce the first of 3 teaching and learning strategies that lecturers can use to assist students in being able to make a more informed decision about their academic aptitude in a course.


Effective and precise design of a learning sequence is imperative if students are to succeed in a course. Clear and manageable learning outcomes must drive the design of learning activities and assessment. Whilst it is not necessary to cater to the whims of students’ interests, it is necessary that a student sees a purpose of taking the course in relation to their personal aspirations. One way to begin the design of the sequence that covers these demands is to develop a visual curriculum map. Such a map shows a student how the topics within the course are intertwined and how the accumulation of the knowledge taught within the course leads to future opportunities. 



‘The scientist must organise. One makes a science with facts in the way that one makes a house with stones. But an accumulation of facts is no more a science than a pile of stones is a house.’ Henri Poincare

As the expert, trained for many years in your respective field, you would have built and developed a large web of interconnected ideas (schema) for your subject. It is this schema, or parts of it at least, that you will teach. As the expert, you understand how the parts of the schema fit together, how they feed off each other, and the sequence of learning required to arrive at such a full and complex understanding. But the novice learner arriving into your lecture theatre has little of this knowledge. To them, everything will initially appear very abstract and disparate, particularly pre-census. The abstraction makes it difficult to make connections that will lead to the acquisition of schema, an essential determinant of further learning.  

The visual course map serves as a model of your thinking, an explicit representation of the processes required to create relevant schema. As Clark and Mayer (2008) suggest, this immediately offers some context and orientation to your students, and facilitates what Willingham believes to be an essential need in learning in making the abstract more concrete. Such a process is easily recognised considering our own learning – we naturally convert the abstract into meaningful concrete information. Showing students the journey they are about to embark on and providing an otherwise closed window into your mind, and into the course’s structure, helps novices to transform the abstract into the more digestible concrete.



Once made visible, walking students through the schema is the next step. Explaining how each piece of the puzzle fits in with the next is crucial in a sequence of learning. Focusing on the connections and links between disparate ideas is how we move from a pile of stones to the building of a house. Ensuring each connection is secure through formative assessment, particularly through the online supplement, is necessary to avoid the ‘curse of knowledge’ and to know that your students are able to move onto the next component of the course. The curse of knowledge is the idea that when you know something well it is difficult to imagine that others don’t, and so we tend to brush over simple but important links and connections between content. Often, these links are actually vital for a novice to develop their own schema on a topic.  This 1976 cartoon by James Stevenson visualises the issue well:


Shortly, I will be able to provide you with an example of this map being interactive, where students will be able to click on a relevant section and be taken to the relevant learning associated with it. This can be done using H5P and then utilising mastery pathways (more on this soon in the 2nd strategy post).


There is an enormous amount of research (Clark and Mayer 2008) validating the effectiveness of modelling your own thinking and processes to students to move them from novices with immature schemata to experts with developed, sophisticated schemata. The novice is indeed a different type of learner to the expert, their less developed schemata severely impacting the cognitive load on working memory, and thus having significant implications to the types of questions and activities you engage them in. The table below illustrates the need to understand the learning continuum when planning a sequence of learning.

Actively explaining the ‘glue’ that binds topics and how you arrived at your understanding provides a model for students to learn and use in subsequent learning, learning in which they are more likely to make their own independent ‘glue’ as they will have more knowledge to draw from and more automaticity in their working memory.


Not only is it useful to highlight to students how each topic fits together to form the schema in a course, but it is also useful to show students how the course fits into a larger picture of learning. A course map should also articulate to students the possible exit pathways that acquiring the knowledge in the present course facilitates. The TEQSA framework for teaching (3.1.1) is clear in this being required:

 The design for each course of study is specified and the specification includes: g.  exit pathways, articulation arrangements, pathways to further learning.

Research has found that students are often ‘… not aware how different elements of courses functioned as building blocks in the development of their research skills and knowledge.’ An increased awareness of the connections between courses within a program would serve to provide greater opportunity for students to think more about them, and consequently develop the necessary schemata. The visual course map is ideally suited to provide the context and purpose of a course in relation to others in the program. Seeing possible overlaps in outcomes by viewing colleagues’ maps provides opportunity to identify the connections and make them explicit in your teaching sequence. This will deepen learning as the explicit connections will strengthen students’ memory of the content through the continuous retrieval process that such a strategy affords.

This then further encourages students to participate in your course as they will revisit/need the content in other courses too, and the overlap will reduce pre-census cognitive load.


STUDENTS: The visual journey map allows students to self-evaluate their own understandings of each section, and source extra information, resources and practice to fill any gaps. This is particularly important in the first 4 weeks of teaching, even though the schema at this point would be only partially complete. I will provide lots more advice on metacognition in the 3rd strategy post.

YOU: The added benefit to this strategy is that it helps you fine tune your course, ensuring that there is a logical sequential flow to the sequence of teaching. It will help you define the key aspects that you want students to focus on, and give you direction on how to structure resources and assessment based around those.


  1. Create the map as a rough mind map articulating the key components of your course.
  2. Work backwards and add in assessment (see part 2) at key junctions
  3. Then either on your own, or with help from a learning designer, create a series of visuals that sequence the growth of the schema.


  1. The map would be displayed as the first image in your first lecture, as well as the dominant image in the online supplement.
  2. The first teachings would then highlight the section of the map currently being addressed, with the remaining sections faded out.
  3. Crucially though, the map should be continually referred to as the learning continues and builds on itself. This not only provides context, but assists the retrieving of knowledge, as students make stronger neural connections to what has already been taught from the map because of it being continually referred to and thus recalled. The students are then beginning to build the schema in their own minds.
  4. The final lectures would display the map and encourage learners to fill in the links. This could form an excellent formative assessment task prior to exams to help students identify areas of weakness. 

The next post will provide strategies for designing the support presented to students in terms of scaffolding cognition.

I’m Paul Moss. Follow me on Twitter (@edmerger) or on LinkedIn for more discussions about learning design.

Cover image: Credit: ©




the data suggest that students who start strong finish strong

Enabling students to make educated decisions about whether or not they should continue with a course post census is of paramount importance. Poor decisions have large financial, social and employment implications that are inextricably tied to them, and they also weigh heavy on the conscientious lecturer. This is the first in a series of posts designed to support the capability of faculties in the application of 3 strategies to help reduce the number of students who drop out after census without being able to formulate precise understandings about their aptitude for learning in a particular course.

The numbers in black represent hypothetical, but likely familiar, attrition of 1st year undergraduate students in respective faculties filtered by low participation in online engagement. Since modern higher education is very much characterised by a blended learning experience, where the online component is used to address the lack of personalisation in the face to face offering, the data suggest that students who start strong finish strong, and conversely, those who don’t won’t.  

This leads to the burning question: why aren’t these slow starters getting involved? There could be multiple reasons, but what this resource proposes is that it is not simply that they don’t like the look or navigation of a page, but that dis/engagement is also affected by the sequence of instruction and perhaps most critically, by the levels of support embedded in the sequence specifically dedicated to the development and building of schema

Modern learning design then needs to be considered on several fronts:

  • the sequence of learning and its purpose
  • the support presented to students in terms of scaffolding cognition
  • the user experience  

I suggest that attention to these factors would increase the participation levels of these disengaged students, and give them a better indication if the content they are engaging with is suitable either in terms of academic difficulty or actual interest in the course.

For some students, disengagement at the first signs of challenge can become the default behaviour; then failure is not seen as their fault ( a learned helplessness) – they are able to maintain dignity. The trouble is that they and indeed we will never know if they were actually capable of achieving in the course. Supporting cognitive load from the first instance will ‘catch’ some of these students too.


Students failing your course is never a nice feeling. The impetus for attention then is not solely limited to the plight of the student, but for faculties eager to retain students initially drawn to them, and the lecturer who has to bear the statistics. Of course, sometimes students simply get it wrong and enrol in a course they would never be suited to, and faculties are forced to work harder to guide and reposition them in something more appropriate. But even in such a context, this resource is still of use, in helping students arrive at an understanding quicker, and at a more informed and conclusive decision. Once the strategies are applied, the lecturer can safely conclude that they did all they could to sustain their students’ attention, and not feel a gnawing sense of guilt or worse, shame at the darkness on the graph.


Perhaps tellingly however, large numbers of students who persist through semester one and actually had mid-range online participation levels do not re-enrol in any course within the same faculty in semester two.

Notably, these numbers are larger than the disengaged numbers in semester one. Even with online engagement, these students did not experience enough satisfaction to continue their interest in the course; they were willing, but the course couldn’t support them. Because of this outcome, it could be argued that even though some of these students did start strong in terms of participation, it may have simply been motivation and therefore resilience that drove their engagement. Resilience at this stage of the student’s journey then is a poor proxy for success and reiterates the need for stronger learning design that works on building intrinsic engagement in students. Intrinsic engagement is only likely to form when students experience success in their learning, almost always the result of deeper understanding of concepts and topics – facilitated by scaffolded cognitive loading.

IN SUMMARY: Learning sequences that support the significant cognitive load demands on beginning students by:

  • explicitly focusing on the sequence of learning and its purpose,
  • by supporting students in terms of scaffolding cognition,
  • and by following the technological design principles necessary to engage the modern user

 will all combine to help students to begin their studies on the front foot, and eliminate poor design of a course as a possible contributor to discontinued enrolment.

Learning design that supports the building of intrinsic engagement then empowers students to make the correct choices in deciding to continue or discontinue with a course. Concomitantly, this resource also provides additional structure for students already experiencing success, helping them move more quickly from the novice learner to the expert learner, and thus independence, and adding weight to statistics that support the notion of Strong Start, Strong Finish.

In the next post I will discuss the first learning design focus, and explain the power and necessity of a curriculum map

I’m Paul Moss. Follow me on Twitter (@edmerger) or on LinkedIn for more discussions about learning design.


What’s the most important thing to consider when designing a learning sequence?

Simple – know where your students are on the journey of cognition. Know how much schemata they have!

The Learning Continuum

It matters little what age or sector your students are in. Where they are on the cognition continuum determines the type of learning experiences you design, the questions you can ask and the quality of responses you can hope for. This is because the brain looks very different at each of these stages, stages that ultimately represent the amount of knowledge and understanding about a given topic.

The brain stores information by creating schema (schemata in the plural), or webs of interrelated ideas. The more knowledge a student has, the greater the number of connections that the schema possesses and the more likelihood that more complex questions will be able to be processed, and answered.

The acquisition of schema is absolutely paramount to learning, and so MUST be the primary focus of the design of a learning sequence.

This learning continuum informs the AQF Level 7 threshold learning outcomes for Higher Education in Australia, with focus of year 1 undergraduate degrees that provide induction into the key ideas and knowledge of the discipline, and moving to application of the knowledge in the third year.

I’m Paul Moss. Follow me on Twitter (@edmerger) or on LinkedIn for more discussions about learning design.

DUAL CODING and ART – is there a connection?

I recently tweeted an imploration to primary teachers to teach more art in order to help secondary students become better at utilising the method of dual coding. The response to the tweet certainly took me by surprise, with a mix of responses ranging from:

  • support, to
  • indignation at the notion that art should not be taught to benefit secondary students but be taught for art’s sake, to
  • indignation that primary teachers shouldn’t be serving secondary teachers

But most surprising of all was the assured dismissal of the notion from one of the strongest proponents of dual coding in the present climate: Oliver Caviglioli.

My position is this: a student who is better at art, and specifically drawing (a distinction I admit I should have made clear in the original tweet), is more likely to dual code because they are more confident in drawing and more able to represent their conceptual understanding.

There is an important distinction to be made here however. If the conceptual understanding is already there, then there isn’t much more encoding happening, so technically, it is not dual coding. The benefit of drawing would be in the retrieval process, strengthening the memory by creating another neural pathway to it via the drawing. However, it could also be argued that the drawing is still serving teh encoding process by strengthening the coding, forcing teh drawer to think deeper about the concept. It is from this position then that i shall continue in this line of argument. Thanks to Dan Williams for this insight.

I’m certainly not suggesting that someone who is not good at drawing is excluded from dual coding, a point that Oliver understandably exhorts in order to open the practice to as many as possible. Oliver states that dual coding is not about drawing or perception, but is more a means of translating conceptual thinking. I completely understand this distinction, however I believe that a more confident drawer is more able to represent concepts and understanding because they possess the ability to convert what’s in their brain onto the paper with greater ease than someone who isn’t a good drawer. The automaticity that resulted from the development of the hand eye/brain coordination would free the working memory, and should significantly speed up the process of encoding with dual channels*.

I use myself as the example of this: I am always trying to dual code my understanding of what I read, but my lack of drawing ability forces me to go to google and search for images, which takes time, and is at the mercy of what is already there. My ‘search’ is my conceptual understanding, it is what I want, but if the drawing I have in my mind isn’t there, perceptually, not only has it taken considerably more time than if I drew it myself, but worse is that I have to take the second best image. A student in the classroom trying to conceptualise their understanding to improve the encoding process is also at the mercy of such conditions, but worse without google, clumsily and painstakingly attempts to transcribe their ideas onto the paper. It’s demotivating.  

One of Oliver’s retorts to this is that the skill of line drawing is simply a 5 minute training exercise, and thereby negates the connection between competency in drawing and dual coding. I mean absolutely no disrespect to Oliver, but I believe there is some creeping in here of the ‘curse of knowledge’. All skills are arrived at via a process of the acquisition of schema. It is the accumulation of knowledge and indeed its practice that eventually leads to automaticity when new contexts present themselves, and without the underlying acquisition of a ‘learning to draw’ schema, the skill of dual coding suffers. Take for example the images I’ve chosen in the post’s front image. Getting line drawings to reflect the differences between the old aged person and the zombie and the assertive flag bearer (in other words, numerous and maybe even countless concepts) is not something that can be mastered in 5 minutes.

Alex Quigley also challenged the tweet suggesting that there is no evidence linking the idea of better drawing with better dual coding, intimating that the connection between effective drawing and dual coding would in fact be quite the jump, an example of ‘far’ transfer of knowledge. I replied that using this as a basis for not engaging in the development of ‘drawing’ knowledge to develop a broader skill is dangerous ground as it effectively renders the accepted argument for the concerted development of distinct knowledge that doesn’t resemble the final skill as redundant. Daisy Christodoulou succinctly addresses this here with her marathon analogy. She also recently addresses an ostensible contradiction with ‘far transfer’ and the distinct development of knowledge here, leaning on the idea that there are alternating stages in a larger cycle of learning, and that well thought out learning design essentially replaces the ‘far’ with ‘near’; with the larger goal in mind, all knowledge acquisition is a part of the journey, and the concept of ‘far’ becomes ironically short-sighted.

I would place learning to draw as a useful component on the journey to mastering the larger broader skillset of dual coding. And because of that, I would say there is a connection between art and dual coding. Of course, as Alex states, there is no evidence to truly affirm this, but it seems pretty logical to me. Open to being wrong.

*I don’t have any evidence of this. It is an intuitive assumption.

I’m Paul Moss. Follow me on Twitter @edmerger and follow this blog, if you’d like.


Last year I posted how I approached my GCSE Literature course design; it was one of my most read blogs (thank you to all). I suggested the course should essentially be a story, with each new learning sequence inextricably connected to the last, and indeed, to several other parts of the journey. The story would be continuously referenced when every new piece of content was added, the discussion of the links significantly helping my students to understand that the course was a whole being, and not to see it merely as a disparate collection of units: a process that would significantly aid their memories as the links would effectively and continuously and unconsciously build a strong schema that could be referenced to reduce cognitive strain in new learning contexts.

Well, it most definitely worked. The post is below.

What I Would Change

I should have added a visual map of the final product, as well as making each stage of the journey visually explicit so students could see how the journey unfolds. This would have helped students see how each new piece was connected to what had been learnt. The map then would have become a representation of the schemata that would form in the student’s brain, and helped secure the links of knowledge that enable understanding.

So I’ve added the visual map now. The video shows the content incrementally building and connecting to various other content.

This visual display also serves other very powerful functions

  • It helps you as the teacher to see the key elements of your course, and design a relevant sequence that will piece it all together.
  • The visual aspect to the mapping provides a more concrete demonstration of how lesson after lesson actually fits together. Obviously the final map presented at the beginning of the unit of work won’t mean very much to your students, but as the units unfold, the connections will become more tangible. I would always have the final map as well as the map in progress visible to students somewhere in the classroom.
  • Students themselves could be adding to their own map using dual coding as the learning sequences are presented to assist developing understanding. See how I have done this for A Christmas Carol here and the entire poetry anthology here.
This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is acc-in-quotes-e1562592233762.png
  • Students can then also self-evaluate if there are any gaps in the sequence; they will be able to see why they can’t engage with a certain topic because they have a clear visual display of the gap leading up to it.

Zoning in and Mastery

  • This process can be emulated in micro, at every stage of the learning journey. Each new topic should have a small concept map that the teacher frequently refers to, that articulates and visually shows the various links of importance.
  • Each map, once secure in the student’s mind (effectively turning them into an expert on this particular learning continuum), presents opportunities for more open ended questions and tasks to be explored and undertaken. Designing learning that incorporates this balance between higher order thinking and more concrete closed knowledge chunks is an essential component of healthy retrieval practice, as suggested in this latest fascinating research by Poojah Agarwal.
  • Retrieval practice – remove sections of the map; remove words in each circle; remove some of the lines connecting the topics and have students create new connections justifying their choices in writing along the line, as Sophie has done with her excellent reading connections post here. There are also other options for mixing up retrieval here.

The Power of the Map

Of course, the links are subjective, but that only serves to strengthen the learning as links are debated and justified. In fact, this process presents many higher order learning possibilities, all serving to deepen the understanding of the key concepts and constructing new thinking:

  • Justifying the links and connections strengthens the understanding of each aspect of the map
  • Strengthen comparisons – Once individual content is secure, the student can ‘think’ with what s/he has, and with comparison a must in all literature courses, this process pushes thinking to connect ideas. The comparisons can also be made with context, and students can more easily see how certain eras and writers are affected by others.
  • Each section can have many more contextual links added if time permits, which continuously builds a cultural literacy that can have a big impact on the Language course comprehension tasks and general reading proficiency.

Here’s the explanation as to how the map has been constructed from the previous blog. In the explanation I’ve covered every text/element of the Eduqas GCSE English Literature and Language courses. 

The courses offer a wonderful web that spans centuries of time. The oldest text is of course Shakespeare. What’s good to know when thinking of Elizabethan context is that the time is dominated by religious conflict, with the heirless Elizabeth I’s court choosing James I (James IV of Scotland) to succeed her primarily because he was Protestant. His continuation of the persecution of Catholics is what led to the Gun Powder Plot, and James’ consequent fear of assassination. In Jacobean times the showing of Macbeth served to illustrate that corrupt ambitions lead to tragic outcomes, but the theme is pertinent still because it can be accessed on a variety of levels: selfishness, greed, lying etc, and thus becomes a central strand of the moral and affective learning in the entire course. 

Jumping to the late 1700’s, George III lightened some of the anti-Roman Catholic laws, but Catholics still couldn’t vote in parliament. George is disliked for extending the war in America after the failed prevention of American independence, intransigent in his view that the new state should be made to pay for its disrespectful arrogance of wanting such freedoms. William Blake references this in the poem London: ‘The hapless soldier’s sigh/ Runs in blood down the palace walls.’  Soldiers are disillusioned in being forced to fight for things they don’t believe in. The blood down palace walls is perhaps a signal to Londoners to rise up against such tyranny like those involved in the French Revolution.

Shelley reiterates opposition to George’s warmongering, in the metaphorical Ozymandias, a tale of an arrogant egotistical ruler who proudly expresses his ‘sneer of cold command’, and who doesn’t realise the futility of demanding to be seen as the ‘king of kings’. Shelley’s reference to the bible’s labelling of Jesus is likely the result of exhaustion from the continuous battles between Catholic and Protestant religious factions. Shelley’s solution: become atheist, a stance that had him expelled from Oxford. (Shelley essay here)

Shelley’s, and indeed all of the Romantics insistence that it is really only nature that lasts and therefore warrants our ultimate attention is confirmed when a book of poetry by one of the strongest ‘natural’ poets, Keats, was found on his drowned body in 1822. Wordsworth too could be considered in this vain, with Excerpt from The Prelude adroitly referencing the importance of nature in grounding the developing individual, as well as Seamus Heaney’s Death of a Naturalist that similarly uses nature as a cover to examine the human condition, but Shelley was more aligned to the newer Romantics. Keats’ instruction to cherish the moment and to accept the inevitability of death in To Autumn, an admirable feat considering that death and loss dominated his life, is a timely message for students whose culture demands that what is now is irrelevant and that the next best thing must be acquired at any cost. The perpetual message, interminably promoted on social media, that the grass is always greener on the other side is an incredibly damaging one for our students. The message corrupts and distorts into the belief that what is on the surface must be prioritised, and that we must look and act like the unrealistic impressions generated by media… Continue reading

I’m Paul Moss. Follow me on Twitter @edmerger and follow this blog, if you’d like.

Finding time for CREATIVITY

This is part 3 in a series of blogs on creativity in the classroom. The first is here, and the second here.

As stated previously, providing students with adequate knowledge before problem solving or inquiry is opened up is not an attempt to smother or stifle curiosity or independence, it’s simply a necessary, pragmatic and sensible approach that understands motivation, both intrinsic and extrinsic, and is trying to foster a love of learning. Daisy Christodoulou argues something similar convincingly here in a debate with Guy Claxton. I think a reasonable take away from Daisy’s perspective is this:

A knowledge approach is actually the problem-solver’s best friend, trying to develop an independent learner by keeping them enthused about inquiry because they have the capacity to engage with it.

But equally, as Guy exhorts, only teaching knowledge and forgetting about its application may also be doing students a disservice. It is not a condition of learning that all knowledge should be applied for it to be a valid learning experience, but there should be ample opportunity in a curriculum because it’s another way to engage a sense of excitement about the content, a way to foster a love of learning, and a way to begin the development of the next innovators, artists, entertainers and scientists etc. Almost without exception, students producing interesting applications of what we’ve taught them is highly motivating for them. The feelings of excitement and satisfaction evoked by successful creative endeavours would assuage Guy Claxton’s fear that students in traditional education aren’t given the preparedness for the demands of a future society that values creativity as a highly adaptive skill. If experienced, students will seek these feelings as often as possible. 

It’s also another way to maintain our love of the subjects we teach when we see students creatively apply the knowledge in new and novel ways – it’s exciting! Those moments when I’ve read a really insightful interpretation of a text is one of the best parts of my job.

So where do we add it in the curriculum?

It seems that prescribing space near the end of a unit would be the first place to begin. However, end of unit tasks certainly shouldn’t be dumbed down expositions into weakened curriculum, as Joe Kirby warns against but resolves wonderfully here. Mark Enser similarly cautions us about the ease with which sequenced activities can fall into the mire of simply ‘doing’ tasks here. But like all experts, the best teachers explore all the research available to them and use their common sense, intuition and specific contexts to design a learning experience for their students that fosters a love of learning.

Here are some possible counterarguments to the legitimate issues raised in the last post that may serve to get you rethinking about how much opportunity you provide for creative application of the knowledge you’ve taught:

Issues with creative curriculum design Solutions to issues
Lack of reliability in assessing it summative standardised tests are the only valid method of assessment at national level, so how do you assess creativity, which is highly subjective? How then can we safely say that everyone in the class is benefitting from this context? Are there some (many) who are simply bludging? and if the amount of time dedicated to creatively applying knowledge is several lessons, is this wasted time?
Can we loosen the standardised nature of some assessments to encourage creative responses to tasks, and take a leap of faith that it will still be a valid endeavour? Can we at least use criterion based measurement, even though they are wrought with validity issues? Do we have to have data on everything, or can a task have inherent value, knowing what it is developing a habit of thinking about what to do with the knowledge? Sometimes too an episodic experience can serve to strengthen the semantic knowledge in other, ostensibly hidden ways.

Also, can we truly measure the benefits of engagement? If students are genuinely enthused about your subject having created an interesting application of what we’ve taught them, this may drive further learning in ways we can’t always foresee.
Creative application is messy – in a class of many children completing multiple projects, it is extremely difficult to manage their progress and whether there is sufficient application from all. Each project would have to be assessed in terms of its practicality and feasibility, and adjusted if unrealistic on both fronts. Like EYFS teachers who insist that scripted lessons are impractical in terms of managing the children, likewise secondary students left to open undirected learning can be equally troublesome, and most teachers could do without the exhaustion of it all. Building the metacognition of how to approach a creative task can alleviate this issue. Helping students become more reasonable with their projects, helping them learn about resources and time management as early as possible, and beginning with creative opportunities that are actually quite limited in scope so as to build that thinking. Culturing a classroom of high expectations is crucial to build this type of thinking also, and this post by Cerridwen Eccles exemplifies that.
Lack of expertise in other fields– students working on projects may not have the appropriate skills needed to carry out the intentions of their project. E.g. artistic, technological, etc. and employing other areas of the school to assist is a logistical issue. This then takes us back to the original issue that prevents this type of learning from being successful – when the knowledge base isn’t sufficient for actual learning to happen. Never has there been a stronger argument for keeping the arts as a central focus in school. Ensuring that a curriculum provides students access to a range of mediums to express themselves is key here. Limiting creative experiences initially to areas that have been learnt in other subjects would be a wise place to build the success of creative time in classes. Primary teachers seem to be particularly good at this, say for example using art to strengthen other curriculum areas. These teachers teach students how to paint and draw so that this knowledge can be applied with ease in expression of ideas related to other learning. Having a good understanding of what students are taught in other subjects is a good place to start.
There’s so much content – as soon as a unit is completed, it is assessed, and the next one introduced, predominantly with external examinations in mind. Boards of education seem to have rammed so much content into the curriculum possibly because of a fear of there being empty spaces – because creative aspects can’t be assessed, those who don’t provide such learning experiences need something to do – the corollary of this is that everyone pays the price with the need to add more content.  Taking the established knowledge to creative places will result in deeper understandings, and ironically, may result in more learning happening overall, as students find the next topic potentially easier having built schemas that facilitate acquisition of new, but related information; the espousing of a quest for depth of knowledge is a common thread in every piece of education literature I’ve ever read about goals of education. The absolute key then is to design your curriculum that has obvious links.  Claire Hill articulates such a proposition beautifully here.

Also, mini creative moments during units of work can serve as creative opportunities for students who have secured content and are waiting for others in the class to get there too. This may be in the form of challenging questions, designing representations, applying understanding to new contexts etc. This differentiation can be simply done as the teacher wanders the room and sees students ready for such exploration. 
It’s hard enough teaching the knowledge right – few of us have mastered the intricacies required to take students to mastery, and with the next part of the course needed to be got at, not only is there not time to foster an experimental context of the knowledge, but students likely haven’t mastered the knowledge to be able to use it effectively anyway. I hold myself up against educators like Tom Needham and Adam Boxer in this regard, educators who are meticulous in their planning and delivery of content to ensure mastery. I recommend you check them out. I think a well designed curriculum borrowing from the expertise of educators who have clearly mastered the craft is the answer here. Direct instruction hosts connotations of restrictive pedagogy, but in reality no teacher wants there to be gaps in learning, so if direct instruction eliminates them, it would seem feasible to entertain the method. Using worked examples and focusing on removing ambiguity in communication is teh topic of this superb series of blogs by Tom Needham here. Adam Boxer also discusses the importance of then slowly removing the scaffold to increase the challenge here.
To allow space for practising skills – Inexorable accountability results in schools panicking, ‘like swimmers that do cling together, and choke their art’*, by sterilising curriculum, and teaching to the test. Opponents to this aspect of modern schooling are numerous, correct and vociferous about the reductionist outcomes of accountability, but nevertheless, this elephant is very much still in the room.Logically it is quite clear that teaching to the test simply doesn’t work. The reason is that tests are a sample of a domain of knowledge, and if you only teach a sample then students won’t have the requisite knowledge if that sample isn’t in the next exam. It is also so boring to teach in this way. It doesn’t mean that you wouldn’t have the end game in mind; pragmatically you just have to, but you would understand what knowledge is needed and design curriculum that builds towards it. That’s just good teaching anyway.

It is imperative that educators do not conflate the argument for creativity with the idea that learning isn’t worthwhile unless it has a creative element. Often, the learning itself in adding to the student’s knowledge is a worthwhile endeavour, and I am certain that teachers will add to this post their own ideas about how creativity can be a natural part of a learning sequence, from which lots of inquiry can be generated. So, is there space in your curriculum for some creative application of the knowledge that you have spent considerable energy designing and presenting to your students? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

I’m Paul Moss. Follow me on Twitter @edmerger , and follow this blog for more education and English teaching posts.


We’re all in this together

One of the most pernicious forces that creates fraction between secondary and primary sectors is the implicit understanding, perpetuated by the current accountability system, that the buck stops with the last teacher. The pressure with the need to succeed creates a defensive front, and instils the notion in secondary teachers that what has come before is not as important as what’s happening now, and that the most important stage is the current one. This is particularly the case for those teaching GCSE, A-level and SACE classes, where examination is looming large, and the pressure to produce results similarly so.

But ask any teacher in these years, and they will tell you emphatically that one year of education doesn’t maketh the student, and that expectations placed solely on the shoulders of those teaching the last year are unrealistic, unfair and damaging. Of course it works both ways, with a successful examination period rendering the last teacher the hero of the day, but it’s a short sighted ephemeral position to take, one that will come back to bite you at a future date.

Important then is the need for secondary teachers to honour the work done by those who have taught the students before them. And to take a real interest in what is being taught, and support and get behind those in primary when they face cuts in budgets and curriculum time in certain subjects, or any obstacles whatsoever to delivering a quality education, because it inevitably affects all of us.

Essential primary

Things that primary teachers do benefit secondary teachers enormously. Take the teaching of reading for example. Secondary teachers can’t teach unless reading is secure, so secondary should have a very large interest and understanding in how it is done. Jennifer Buckingham is forthright in her claim that it’s nothing ground-breaking in claiming that every teacher should know how to teach reading, but I would hasten to guess that lots of secondary teachers wouldn’t know how to do it. That’s not an indictment on secondary teachers, more on the aggregation of misguided pedagogies including insufficient training in reading in initial teacher training, assuming students would be proficient in reading and concentrating on subject disciplines, and it being believed to be the job of someone else. Reading blogs on phonics and reading best practice should be a priority of all secondary teachers, and primary teachers offer plenty of resources and discussions on reading, like here, and here, here and here.

Or take the teaching of art in primary, and it potentially being squeezed out of significance with increased time dedicated to English and numeracy to satisfy SATS and NAPLAN examinations. Secondary teachers are unlikely to be too aware of this issue or to be frank, care too much about it as it doesn’t directly affect their situations; the greater the workload the greater the need to focus on yourself increases. But think of some of the benefits of our students coming through into secondary with excellent art skills. Students will have excellent fine motor skill, will be better trained at paying attention to detail, and thus have better attention spans, have greater capacity in taking their thinking from the local to the global perspective, better able to persevere through a series of processes, can become more comfortable using image as metaphor, and can use image as an effective dual coding exercise when note taking and revising. Add to this the affective benefits of art to young people’s development.

A generation on of course would mean the teacher herself would be a competent drawer and can incorporate dual coding frequently, and use images as metaphor to deepen understanding of themes and characters and contexts, and model application of knowledge by representing and symbolising content in creative ways, an ultimate goal of building knowledge.

So we need to take notice of any proposed changes, contribute to discussions regarding its implementation, and most importantly, defend the importance of art in primary school with primary colleagues, because if we lose it, not only will our teaching potential be significantly diminished, but our cultural literacy endangered.     

Noble primary

One of the main goals of teaching is to be able to take pride in the knowledge that you have contributed to society by producing knowledgeable emotionally competent well-adjusted people. It’s a noble profession. It’s a job that few could claim such an outcome, and it almost compensates for the disproportionate pay. Primary school teachers get lots more opportunity to practice this nobility because their teaching is such a long way from the final year of education, and the selfless nature of the role is furthered when primary teachers think about the bigger picture of where a student will be in 5 years time, and give the student the tools that are going to help them succeed in further learning. For example, it’s going to be pretty certain that a student in 5 years time is going to have to know about Victorian times, so teaching that in primary school is going to help the secondary students have an excellent grasp on the context of a Victorian novel, which not only would make the reading of that novel or poem significantly more meaningful and therefore pleasurable, but would also free up working memory, increasing the opportunity for students to engage in discussions and critical thinking about the text, and explore interpretations in essays and other assessment activities in a deeper more productive way. If you are primary and want to speak to someone in secondary to ask about later stage requirements, there are lots and lots of secondary teachers who could provide information about secondary curricula, like @ensermark (geography), @xris (English), @MrThorntonteach (history), @mathsmrgordan (maths), @adamboxer1 (science), @teachartdesign (art).

Barriers to collaboration

One of the main reasons why there potentially isn’t a greater link between two sectors is the unpredictability of curriculum and expectations/standards that students need to have mastered by the end of school. It’s hard for primary school teachers to have a five-year future in their minds when planning curriculum because it’s changed so many times over the years, and potentially could again. However, it would also be hard to imagine that any current teaching based on what students are presently doing at the end of their schooling careers would be wasted. Learning about contexts of Victorian times or Jacobean times or Elizabethan times or colonial times et cetera is all valuable knowledge in terms of cultural literacy and reading comprehension at later stages.

With this in mind, it is certainly quite a admirable undertaking for a primary school teacher to base a curriculum on where a student will be in five years time, considering that very little praise or recognition would be awarded to that teacher. How many secondary teachers with the latest exam results have thanked primary school teachers for the ground work they established? Of course it’s not practical for a secondary teacher to have awareness of every single teacher that the students have had throughout their schooling careers, but it’s not about specific acknowledgement, it’s about a general acknowledgement and recognition of how crucial the work of primary school teachers is. It’s just as important as the secondary, and confirms that we’re all in this together.

I’m Paul Moss. Follow me on Twitter @edmerger, and follow this blog for more educational and English teaching discussions

My ResearchED talk from Rugby

Having the opportunity to speak at ResearchED Rugby was a real honour, and the event was simply a wonderful occasion. I met lots of incredibly friendly people, and I was incredibly inspired by their passion and willingness to improve the educational landscape, a passion I certainly share. A huge thanks goes to Jude Hunton for asking me to speak, and organising a superb event.

The rough transcript of my talk is below, and a link to the slideshow here. Please let me know if you can’t access it.

Teaching English is simply wondrous. But it’s hard too. There’s so much at stake, so much to do. Getting the pedagogical balance between the art of teaching and the science of teaching is difficult, imperative, but also EXCITING.  

In my practice, I was too heavy on the art – and not enough on the science, which ironically obstructed and even obfuscated the curriculum from shining through. 

We know what the art of teaching English includes: the purposeful curation and presentation of incredible texts, texts that become windows to the soul, texts that teach us so much about the word, but perhaps more poignantly, teach us about ourselves. We know how powerful the art of expression can be, to be able to express oneself with clarity, precision and insight. And we know how useful it can be to become artful in connecting with students as much as possible, to know the best way to keep them motivated, to become a part of their learning journey, and become inspiration that they never forget. But when I don’t consider the processes that enable students to learn or consider how to make the delivery of content as efficient as possible to assist understanding and retainment of that content, I create an imbalance. 

I know that this imbalance between the art of teaching and the science leads to learning gaps – leads to the Matthew effect taking over. The Matthew effect is exacerbated when students with culturally rich background knowledge are able to absorb and withstand poor instruction whereas those without the background can’t. This is because the culturally rich background allows students to feed off the reserves of cultural fat, whereas those without it emaciate with insipid instruction.  

We know this is a blight in modern schooling – which we must address in the limited time our students spend in front of us.  

So, in today’s session, I want to go through what I believe have been barriers to better teaching and thus better learning by my students, with the largest, and one I’ll spend the most time on, incremental design, taking up much of the focus.  

One of the first significant barriers was a lack of understanding about cognition. Fortunately, research has provided us with what could only be referred to as a game changer – by Sweller – and I’m not only saying that because he’s a fellow Australian. Understanding cognitive load in designing sequences of learning is crucial. Awareness of working memory and its function and poignantly its limitations in learning should ultimately be driving all curriculum decisions. 

This leads onto the next game changer – memory. Prehension of how to assist students retaining information has guided my lessons, with quizzing prevalent in most lessons, and me consciously interweaving concepts and using elaborative retrieval to help students make connections and strengthen memory. I’ve written about various strategies to assist the retainment of content, from creating a story around the curriculum to allow or greater connections between texts and themes, as well as varying retrieval exercises, and finally, utilising the notion of elaborative retrieval, which again , via making connections through storytelling facilitates the triggering of multiple neural paths to arrive at a desired memory.  

The learning scientists are the go to people for discussing memory, with good explanations offered for students themselves to assist their metacognition. 

The 3rd aspect of cognition is dual coding. I would recommend you see Oliver Cavliogli talk about this, but… he is speaking next door right now, so I guess I have to tell you. Well actually let me use another of the greats to explain it: the brain has 2 channels for learning: auditory (listening and reading) and visual (images). What Chris has done here is to help students remember the entire story of Romeo and Juliet, almost using images as a trigger for retrieval – it essentially becomes an elaboration method, where there is now another possible neural path for the memory to travel.  

This is most definitely the next wave of teaching and learning. 

So now I have a better understanding of these, I remove a barrier to learning. 

The next hurdle was a pandemic plague on education – the obsession with observation and progress. Bjork points out that learning can’t really be measured or observed in a single session – and it’s because of again the understanding of cognition – retrieval strength vs storage – if information was just delivered, it’s going to be fresh, and able to be recalled easily – seeing progress then in a lesson is a false claim. Better off coming back a few days later. I discuss this here in this post about smashing observation – if you have to go through it – show off what your students have been learning over time – deliver lessons that demonstrate learning over time.  

Another one bites the dust! 

Teaching to the test. A pernicious beast! Understandable with accountability. Daisy Christodoulou obliterates the notion, explaining that it actually doesn’t make any logical sense anyway. What is assessed is taken from a domain, and we if assume a certain section, and another comes up in the exam, then we’ve done a huge disservice to our students. A better idea is to teach the domain. 

A concomitant to this is understanding the domain. Taking the time to work it out is crucial – but also being pragmatic. You can’t teach everything, and I think this is a trap for teachers, wanting, with good intention, to teach the world. For example, it’s probably better to teach KS3 story writing as a 45 minute story – to match the GCSE task – this is because it takes a long time to develop writing skills, and narrowing the scope of style will help ensure mastery, or allow us to get closer to it at least. Of course, this tends to run counter to the ideal of English, the romance of it all, freedom of expression and open ended creativity, but it’s not practical – we can’t have it all, and if we try, we might end up with nothing.   

Adapting teaching based on progress of students is a seminal idea by Dylan Wiliam. Far be it for me to add anything to it, but I wander if teachers would be better advised in ensuring delivery of content is incremental so as to avoid moments where pivoting is needed? 

Again, we get closer to where we want to be. 

The final, rather large barrier, is poorly designed curriculum that either isn’t progressive, or doesn’t have the precision to ensure mastery is possible.  

I want to discuss this in 3 contexts: a pragmatic approach, with teachers walking into lessons tomorrow, designing a unit of work, and designing a whole curriculum.  

For teachers considering adapting practice tomorrow, which of course is all of us at some point, I’m going to zoom in on these 3 ideas: 

Modelling: I’ve learnt a great deal from these 3 educators, with Andy Tharby illustrating the usefulness of the I, We, You approach – an apprenticeship approach very much in line with Rosenshine’s principles of Instruction.  

I have added to this concept with the notion of the 4th dimension: the student model – based on the idea that a good student model may be of more use to other students than my model – the curse of knowledge playing a part, but also the register and vernacular may be better suited –especially for struggling students.  

Sarah Barker’s assiduous approach is brilliant – not even allowing any writing to happen until students have absorbed multiple views of the process.  

And tom Needham’s worked example approach, enormously beneficial in reducing cognitive load and in assisting strengthening of writing.   

I’ve been working on the design of a creative writing unit with a very pragmatic approach incorporating the strategies above.  

My view is that at GCSE level, students must know how to write for the 45 minutes. As a base, I have students follow a structure design – with no exceptions. I want to avoid common complaints of lack of creativity = no writing. The structure helps build connections to the main character, and provides a relatively simple plan to develop a decent story. There are 4 sections: which you can read here: a part of a portfolio type assessment, with 2 stories needed to be written before the closed book assessment.  

*Go through sections and comprehension activity and individual sentence design. 

The findings of this approach have been very positive: Very weak students copied model – which is fine, because now they at least have an embedded structure to work from, whereas previsously they would have ended the unit with nothing. Some made minor adjustments to plot; Some were able to use prompts to write an alternative story; Those who chose different structure for second story could evaluate. It led to the development of exam length stories for students to read and become inspired by stories, and to see models of what is required/possible. 

The second consideration to improve teaching overnight is loosely linked to modelling: direct instruction – Tom’s blog again is worth a read in learning about this, based on work by Engelmann. 

Follow through project: monitored the progress of at risk students using multiple models of learning. What the results showed was that for basic skills like reading and maths and language, direct instruction outperformed compared to most other models. Interesting, and poignantly, DI outperformed other models in cognitive abilities: higher order thinking particularly, including against models that explicitly try to develop these skills: open education, discovery learning.  

I’ll allow you to read this: 

And this: 

As you can see, it’s all about mastery before the next stage is introduced. 

It’s certainly going to dominate things from here I believe.  

The 3rd immediate improvement I have made is to write. Stemming from a request by a high-level student for some reading on particular topic, I observed that learners really didn’t have anything to read – there wasn’t anything bespoke for GCSE length.  

So, I started the ball rolling – having a blast along the way, and gaining valuable insight into how themes etc can be discussed, in timed conditions, and developing points in a response. It’s also been amazing fun. It led to developing CLOUD 9 WRITING, where students from around the globe could submit essays of high quality – to read, to learn. Please help me by adding submissions to the platform. 

The second context for avoiding incremental design flaws is in planning a unit of work. I want to approach this from an assessment angle.  

Let’s take a poetry unit in KS3. What I want to demonstrate here is that each assessed component is an individual thing, a component that can be isolated when giving feedback. As soon as you start adding multiple assessable aspects it makes it harder to isolate issues and intervene.  

*go through each phase of the assessment cycle. 

The final element is designing a whole curriculum, and I want to focus on what is an intrinsic part of what we do: grammar.  

Originally, this arose from a state of apoplexy with the pervasive crime of comma splicing.  

I used Daisy Christodoulou’s thinking from the seminal Making good Progress and considered that issues need to be unravelled, and the key components taught in isolation.  

But I realised that it’s not as simple as it seems. There are huge barriers to students becoming really comfortable with components of a main clause, critical knowledge in deciding how to punctuate clauses.  

The 2 main issues are a lack of sequenced schemes of learning in working from the basics. Of course, there are immeasurable numbers of grammar lessons online and in books, but nothing that suitably goes through bit by bit, and written for a secondary level student. So, I have decided to design it:  

*play animation of design 

What it needs of course is for students to master each stage before moving on – another aspect severely lacking in current offerings. This means taking each section and providing activities that ensure mastery, with each new section building and consolidating. 

Here, I’ve designed the sequence of activities. Notice that the activity is carefully planned so as not to include other word classes that could confuse this section – for example, including gerunds or anomalies. There is a mix of correct and incorrect examples to ensure guessing isn’t a successful strategy, and each type of word class has a summative section that tests each specific type in combination.  

Mastery of each is crucial, as the next stage builds on this one.  

So I have a plan – I have the scheme designed already, and lots of activities. I want to include videos to enhance the learning of specific knowledge (dual coding) AND I WANT TO UTILISE ADAPTIVE TECHNOLOGIES TO help students achieve mastery –this can then be done as intervention, in tutoring, at home etc.  

There might be other ways of teaching grammar, but for me it has helped students with punctuation, because I can discuss with them why the comma shouldn’t be there.  

It’s also opened up the opportunity for me to deliver much more precise feedback in writing. It’s allowed me to discuss language much more in class, with comfort. It’s empowered students, helping them gain confidence in understanding more about the language they use every day, and opens their abilities in using language for effect.  

So when attention is paid to incremental design flaws, in fact, when we pay attention to all of these barriers to learning, we eliminate them, and we restore the balance – we provide opportunity for the art of what we do to flourish. 

So, in summary,  

  1. English teaching can become more of a science 
  1. We can eliminate learning gaps by considering research 

Thank you 

I’m Paul Moss. Follow me @edmerger and follow this blog for more English teaching resources.

Be the fountain!

Today in class my students learnt lots, but not just about my subject.

I started in my usual way, with a retrieval quiz. The quiz is always structured to include at least 5 questions from very recent learning, and 2 from months ago, with one from even longer ago. As I went through the answers for the first 5 questions on Lord of the Flies, I suddenly realised just how much knowledge was being imparted to a relatively weaker set of students. They were asked a question about Jack’s red black and white face mask, and recalled the previous lesson’s learning about the Nazi party, and its brief introduction to how it gained popularity, and then abused it, resulting in some of the most horrific consequences of all time; could students see a connection to the character of Jack? Was Hitler the worst? What about Napoleon? ‘Who, oh, that guy Blake talks about?’ A reminder was mentioned of the French Revolution, and consequently the Napoleonic wars – a quick mention of Admiral Nelson and the subsequent Nelson’s column – ‘Oh, that’s what that’s for.’ (The strategy here is to add a little bit more each time you revisit content – next time will be about Trafalgur Square and Wellington). This was then directly related to the study of London, by William Blake, which prompted a question about the industrial revolution, The Romantic poetry movement, and then to Dickens, as also a man trying to eradicate poverty and issues with society. This led to a quick recap on Thomas Malthus, an economist with a theory essentially based on eugenics, akin to Hitler. 

The final 3 questions in the quiz were based on past learning, from the previous year in fact with another teacher, on the poem Sonnet 43. Students were asked about Elizabeth’s ‘past griefs’, which meant talking about her arguments with her father over his Caribbean sugar plantation, made enormously profitable by the use of slaves, which meant asking if students knew what slaves were, why it was even a thing: British imperialism, and where the Caribbean was, which meant talking about North and South America: drawing a rough map – does anyone know why Brazil is the only country in South America that speaks Portuguese while the rest speak Spanish? Quick mention of the Treaty of Tordesillas. ‘Where’s New York, where’s LA? Where’s Hawaii – where’s Amsterdam, is that in America?’  ‘Where’s the UK is in relation to it all’ – ‘how long does it take to fly to New York?’  ‘Can you eat sugarcane?’ which led to a quick discussion of the refinery process, and that white sugar is the worst of all sugars to eat because of the chemical processing, a sugar that fills their soft drinks, and most of their foods. 

After the quiz we resumed reading Lord of the Flies, recapping wonderful vocabulary with Ralph being indignant (why is Scrooge indignant in the beginning of the novella?). Other words such as inscrutable, errant and contemptuously. Ralph accepting the meat, essentially condoning Jack’s behaviour (what does condone mean again? Can you use it in a sentence please ………), leads to him gnawing the meat like a wolf – an example of zoomorphism – write down the definition please.  

And that’s just a quarter of the way through the lesson.  

Going off-piste?

Teaching provides countless opportunities to discuss the world, facilitating an expansion of students’ background knowledge. But you have to take them there.

Because reading comprehension is heavily dependent on background knowledge and cultural capital, a notion beautifully articulated by John Tomsett here, making a point of going off-piste is practically an imperative.  I’ve also written about it here. What I’ve found is that the lower the set, the less general knowledge students have. It’s hardly a generalisation that students in these sets just don’t get access to conversations that can provide such information unless it’s in school, and from YOUR classroom.

Teaching general knowledge is often dismissed due to a lack of time, and the need to get through a curriculum. But great teaching will use effective questioning that is sharp, and well balanced in terms of open and closed questions, to deliver information continuously, in context, and linked in one way or another, all wonderfully woven into curriculum discussions and content.

Knowledge energises the classroom, riveting students with new facts, information that for many previously often seemed intangible, just out of reach, inaccessible, reserved for others. I love looking up and even seeing my most ‘indifferent’ student’s eyes peering my way. It always reminds me of why I love teaching so much.

It’s a sense of empowerment for students to finally get to know things, especially if they have tacitly, repeatedly understood via poor grades that learning is not for them, more the preserve of those in sets above them. But because you know lots and lot of stuff, you can easily change that for them.

So be their fountain of knowledge.

Let your students drink! Fill them up!

I’m Paul Moss. Follow me on Twitter @edmerger, or follow this blog for more similar content about English teaching and education in general.