Achieving independence and self-regulation in learning is the holy grail of education, but how to go about it is as equally mystical. Essential to the quest is developing a rich schema through the building and interaction of knowledge, and whilst belief in the explicit teaching of students in how to think about their thinking processes (metacognition) and how to evaluate them as being an integral part of self-regulation is gaining momentum (EEF), this 2 part post will seek to extend the current understanding by discussing whether it is necessary to promote critical and creative thinking inside subject domains. The essay also expounds on Zimmerman and Moylan’s 2009 paper that theorises that motivation is inextricably linked to both of these metacognitive processes, can’t be omitted from the discussion, and in fact needs to be explicitly taught to students in equal measure. As Kuhn exhorts, ’People must see the point of thinking if they are to engage in it.’  


Whilst many argue that labelling skills such as critical thinking and creativity as ‘21st century’ does an injustice to those who for thousands of years exhibited such proficiency in them, few could argue that there is a growing demand for graduates to be strong in these areas in the age of increasingly automated and mechanised jobs. How to equip students with such skills then has become the mission of educators, but many well-intentioned educators have erroneously conflated the desired outcome with a direct pedagogy, succinctly stated by Kirschner: the epistemology of a discipline should not be confused with a pedagogy for teaching or learning it. The practice of a profession is not the same as learning to practise the profession. There are plenty of excellent voices who assent to this notion, none better then Daisy Christodoulou, specifically pointing to the fact that thinking critically or creatively relies entirely on a strong bedrock of knowledge and can’t be taught in the abstract. If we think about this it seems rather logical – you can’t think about things you have no knowledge of, and most creativity is the accommodation of knowledge already in existence. Such constraints make the application of such skills heavily context and domain dependent. But what tends to be lacking from such unequivocal pedagogy is the answer to this question: once the foundations of knowledge are secure, do students need explicit modelling of how to think critically and creatively with that knowledge? I contend that the answer is yes.  

If we consider how learning is characterised by the acquisition of schema, and how crucial modelling is in that continuum, I would argue that modelling how to play with knowledge is no less important than modelling the knowledge itself. However, it is something that is often overlooked in modern curricula for three reasons:  

  • Because we sometimes assume that students will naturally think in these ways  
  • Because of the need to fit in so much content in so little time  
  • Because it is hard to assess, relying on subjective and therefore unstable evaluation 

The first relies on Geary’s theory of primary vs secondary knowledge. The exposition of the theory is that once sufficient knowledge is obtained, the mixing/matching and challenging/critiquing of what is understood should become axiomatic. From my experience though, without the continuous prompting by the teacher to engage with the knowledge in this way, such an outcome tends to rely heavily on a student being highly motivated in a specific domain of knowledge, with the less interested, but equally as capable student, content with achieving in assessment but not necessarily interested in exploring the content further. But what is notable however about the self-motivated student, is that they still will undertake a process of learning in how to mix and match and challenge what they know, albeit, independently: it is through the experimentation of their thinking and its evaluation that they may eventually arrive at something unique and interesting, but this ostensibly natural skill is actually being practised and refined to be maximised – and quite possibly, inefficiently, compared to what some guidance in the process could afford. When motivation to pursue a discipline is not as high, students need to be prompted to engage in ‘higher order’ thinking. Interestingly, sometimes it is only after these higher order prompts that real interest and motivation is sparked, and so the explicit provocation of them in a learning environment is important.

Sweller’s addition to Geary’s thesis, that : ‘Organizing general skills to assist in the acquisition of subject matter knowledge may be more productive than attempting to teach skills that we have evolved to acquire automatically…’ supports the earlier statement that teaching critical and creative thinking in the abstract is pointless, but it is the focus on the word ‘organising’ that is crucial here: the conclusion then is that it’s not enough to assume students will naturally engage with this type of thinking – it is only through the explicit organisation and modelling of it that will facilitate students being able to self-regulate this thinking.

Practising the application of critical and creative thinking needs time and space for it to be strengthened, and this is why the existence of the 2nd obstacle in educational contexts is so concerning. The impetus of non-invigilated exams has certainly made apparent the need for assessment to involve the application of knowledge. But to do so requires a carefully designed curriculum that facilitates such opportunity in the sequence of learning.  I tend to promote a sequence patterned by the rhythm: learn, practise, apply. New knowledge is introduced by the expert, students interact with and practise using the knowledge to confirm understanding, students then apply their knowledge to do something with it. The application doesn’t have to be a large project type task. It may simply be the asking of higher order questions that include hypothesising, creating analogies, exploring various points of view, wondering if the content can be applied in other contexts, what the connections are to other aspects of the course, or brainstorming with a view to generate new ideas for a real-world context. The latter is especially relevant for the later stages of higher education.  

It is such a pattern of learning that models for students how to interact with the understood knowledge they now have in their possession, a modelling process that observes what Volet (1991) imports as the necessity of identifying and making explicit how an expert thinks. This is relevant to not just when the expert is presented with new problems, but also how they think with the knowledge they already have. Palincsar &Brown (1989) concur, ‘By demonstrating the different activities by which subject matter may be processed, problems solved, and learning processes regulated, the teacher makes knowledge construction and utilization activities overt and explicit that usually stay covert and implicit.’ Like all learning, the goal is to take the metacognition to automaticity so the propensity for self-regulation in the next sequence of learning isn’t compromised by cognitive overload.   


Whether or not this explicit process of thinking within specific domains can be transferred to new contexts remains to be seen, but Simon, Anderson, & Reder (1999) arouse our curiosity when they suggest that transfer happens far more frequently than we might think. They cite reading as a prime example, but more specifically challenge a famous study by Gick and Holyoak who demonstrated that students were unable to see the abstract similarities between two problems even when they were presented side by side:  

One of the striking characteristics of such failures of transfer is how relatively transient they are. Gick and Holyoak were able to increase transfer greatly just by suggesting to subjects that they try to use the problem about the ‘general’. Exposing subjects to two such analogues also greatly increased transfer. The amount of transfer appeared to depend in large part on where the attention of subjects was directed during the experiment, which suggests that instruction and training on the cues that signal the relevance of an available skill might well deserve more emphasis than they now typically receive–a promising topic for cognitive research with very important educational implications.’  

They then continue to suggest that: ‘Representation and degree of practice are critical for determining the transfer from one task to another, and transfer varies from one domain to another as a function of the number of symbolic components that are shared.’ It follows then that for Dignath and Buttner’s claim to be valid, in their meta-analysis on Components of Fostering Self-regulated Learning, that ‘Providing students with opportunities to practice strategy use will foster the transfer of metastrategic knowledge to real learning contexts’, relies on students being able to recognise patterns or connections between contexts where they can apply their metacognition.  

As stated earlier, you can’t think critically and creatively without a strong foundation of knowledge, and further, some of that thinking will be only relevant in specific domains. But it does seem likely that some of the higher order strategies stated above (hypothesising etc) would be able to be applied in a range of disciplines, and that a student observing the modelled thinking processes of a teacher in a second context will recognise some (if not many) elements learnt from their first. Once reinforced through this observation, students will begin the regular learning continuum of taking the skills to automaticity through practice. Once achieved, being able to apply the thinking in new contexts is made more possible – it will be up to further research to ascertain whether, having met these conditions, such transfer is actually possible.  


 Another consideration when teaching critical thinking draws from Kuhn, who exhorts that the development of epistemological understanding may be the most fundamental underpinning of critical thinking. In no uncertain terms, she beseeches that teachers provide the opportunity for students to reach an evaluative level of epistemological understanding, realising that simply possessing an absolute epistemology constrains and in fact eliminates a need for critical thinking, as does a ‘multiplist’ stance, allowing students a degree of apathy characterised by statements such as “I feel it’s not worth it to argue because everyone has their opinion.” The explicit modelling of an evaluative epistemology, where students are encouraged to the fact that people have a right to their views with the understanding that some views can nonetheless be more right than others, sets up a learning culture where students see the ‘weighing of alternative claims in a process of reasoned debate as the path to informed opinion, and they understand that arguments can be evaluated and compared based on their merit (Kuhn, 1991).’ Such a pedagogy may satiate an interesting question posed by Martin Robinson: ‘Should the result of a good education include all students thinking the same or thinking differently?’

The 3rd obstacle also looms large. Assessing creativity especially is a difficult thing due to its subjectivity. Rubrics are notoriously imprecise as a reliable reference in determining success or failure of creativity: what I may think satisfies one element of a rubric may be argued against by a colleague; maintaining consistency even with myself in marking is difficult. And if we don’t assess, will students not particularly interested in the topic lose motivation, and make the process a challenging one to manage? I think the answer lies within the answer to Martin Robinson’s question: surely we don’t want everyone robotically programmed. We want students to engage critically and creatively with concepts, and participate in the building of a dynamic and interesting world, so we have to have faith that the knowledge taught to our students, when learnt well, will provide avenues for curiosity that will engage them to participate. Such an epistemology then satisfies stakeholder desires to employ graduates who can think critically and creatively in a modern workplace.      

So how is motivation linked to it all?

 In the next post, I will extrapolate on Zimmerman’s imperative that metacognition is inextricably linked to motivation, and how educators can ensure they incorporate both in learning design.  


Anderson, J. R., Reder, L.M., & Simon, H.A. (2000, Summer).Applications and Misapplications of Cognitive Psychology to Mathematics Education.Texas Educational Review. 

Dignath, C., Buttner, G. (2008). Components of fostering self-regulated learning among students. A metaanalysis on intervention studies at primary and secondary school level. Article in Metacognition and Learning · December 2008 retrieved from here 

Geary, D. (2001). Principles of evolutionary educational psychology.
Department of Psychological Sciences, University of Missouri at Columbia,
210 McAlester Hall, Columbia, MO 65211-2500, USA here

Palincsar, A. S., & Brown, A. L. (1989). Classroom dialogues to promote self-regulated comprehension. In J. Brophy (Ed.), Advances in research on teaching, Vol. 1 (pp. 35–67). Greenwich, CO: JAI Press. 

Sweller, J. (2008) Instructional Implications of David C. Geary’s Evolutionary Educational Psychology, Educational Psychologist, 43:4, 214-216, DOI: 10.1080/00461520802392208

Volet, S. E. (1991). Modelling and coaching of relevant metacognitive strategies for enhancing university students’ learning. Learning and Instruction, 1, 319–336. 

Zimmerman, B., Moylan, A. R. (2009). Self-Regulation from:
Handbook of Metacognition in Education. Routledge.

I’m Paul Moss. I’m a learning designer at the University of Adelaide. Follow me on Twitter @edmerger

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.


This is part 2 of a series on creativity in schools. Part 1 is here

Ben Newmark’s rousing and simply wonderful treaty on why we teach insists that knowledge is to be taught so students can make connections with their world, and to respect what has gone before them in so much as the gift of what it provides. But I think there’s another purpose: invention.

Invention, or its synonymous ‘innovation’, or ‘creativity’, is an attributing factor as to why society advances. From medicine, to technology, to science, to entertainment, we value dearly our ability to invent, innovate, and create. Great thinkers, musicians, scientists, writers, artists etc all become great because they master multiple components of knowledge in their respective fields, but then crucially have opportunity to draw on that knowledge to mix and reshape and experiment with it (sometimes by mistake) to solve a presented problem.

So yes, there most certainly is a place for creative problem solving in schools, but in order to avoid the dreaded Matthew Effect, ONLY once a sufficient amount of knowledge has been acquired first. This seems antithetical to prominent proponents who excoriate traditional teaching practices want to throw the baby out with the bathwater, like here, but I don’t really think that the majority of teachers share such an extreme position. I think that most teachers who understand the importance of building knowledge in a curriculum also see education as more than just learning knowledge. They see education as an avenue to develop a student’s capacity to DO something with the acquired knowledge, to offer opportunities for them to become the next innovator in a chosen field, rather than just moving on to the next thing to be learnt in the scheme. But this inclination isn’t so easy to put into practice, and I’ll try to explain the issues with this below.  

Caught in a trap

An ideal curriculum would explicitly teach content to continually develop schemata, then encourage inquiry into that knowledge and then if relevant, some sort of application of the knowledge to both deepen the understanding of it and to cultivate a habit of experimenting with it. But it is the last of these that tends to be omitted from modern curricula because:

  • 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?
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.  
  • 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.
  • 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.

English creativity?

I am certain every subject would identify with the above, but for me as an English teacher, English is certainly guilty as charged. With a disproportionate emphasis placed on decontextualized grammar and analysis, secondary students rarely have opportunities to create their own content. Poets, writers, speakers, dramatists, are usually only offered such opportunity to participate in these artforms in extra-curricular clubs. Most creative writing is restricted to a time limit in externalised testing, and if it is internally moderated, is likely to also be restricted so as to be managed.

So are there solutions to these barriers? Is it actually possible to include creative exploration of content and knowledge in a school curriculum?

That’s the subject of the next post.

* do you know what text this quote is from?

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


If creativity is biologically primary does that mean it wouldn’t tax the working memory in discovery learning, thereby eliminating one of the main arguments against the pedagogy?

As humans we are naturally inclined to problem solve. When we problem solve we employ creativity. It as an instinctive aspect of our human condition primarily because our lives are dominated by cause and effect – every decision we make is influenced by a perceived outcome, and we get good at creatively solving problems so we can survive in this way. In this sense, problem solving and creativity are synonymous. Think about the decisions you’ve made today – you invariably did everything to achieve a goal. Of course, most of the decisions were likely to be automatic and subconscious, like cleaning your teeth, but nonetheless, they are goal orientated. To illustrate, imagine if your toothpaste had ostensibly run out. What do you do? Stand there, helpless? No, you find a way to scape every last drop out of that tube – you roll it up, you cut it open etc. You do this because you have the problem of going to work with unbrushed teeth and the social implications your mind conjures up with that fact are unbearable. We find solutions to hundreds of things all day, every day.

Despite the very large elephant in the (class)room of the above notion rendering such an insistent focus on teaching creativity in ’21st century’ curricula practically redundant, even if it is removed as a central focus of curricula, can we not exploit this natural biological tendency in students to be creative and immerse them in project based or discovery learning in which students will creatively solve the problems presented before them via instinct. Wouldn’t this cultivate an independent learning environment but crucially, without it placing excessive load and strain on the working memory and incapacitating it? As John Sweller puts it, “Novices, not possessing appropriate schemas, are not able to recognize and memorize problem configurations and are forced to use general problem-solving strategies such as means-ends analysis when faced with a problem.” Is this cognitive science wanting its cake and eating it too?


It’s not the general problem-solving strategies which are to blame in overloading the working memory, it is the limited amount of knowledge the novice possesses that denies the problem solving from taking place in the first place. The instinctive problem-solving brain, if prompted, scurries to solve whatever it is confronted with by mixing and matching what it already knows into new and novel ways, but if it can’t access any knowledge to creatively apply to the current context, it can’t do it. It’s like one of those shows like Taskmaster where contestants are provided with a problem and given a limited number of resources to overcome the issue – but they come across a challenge without any resources whatsoever. What would contestants do without anything to use? They would revert to what information they already had in their minds. And some will have more than others based on their cultural literacy and thus be able to achieve better solutions. And this is where discovery learning can become enormously disadvantageous for those students with limited background knowledge. Discovery learning can exacerbate the Matthew Effect significantly.  

But what if the student did possess enough background knowledge to creatively apply problem-solving strategies, would discovery learning then be a suitable approach? Yes, it would be, and I contend that it is important to regularly provide such a context in education (which I discuss below), but with two caveats for educators: there’s lots of content to learn in so little time, and it’s far easier not to learn it.

The path of least resistance is deleterious

Learning biologically primary knowledge such as learning to speak and learning to walk is easy and relatively effortless because it is an adaptive evolutionary strategy we need to survive. However, learning biologically secondary knowledge like learning to read and learning to write is not easy as the brain hasn’t evolved sufficiently yet to do it effortlessly. David Geary’s article explains this concept here. It requires dedicated focus and enormous amounts of scaffolding. Setting up a context where students have to continually find the knowledge for themselves in order to promote the end goal of autonomous and independent learning is an inefficient way of going about it. It requires significantly more effort than biologically primary learning, resulting in most students naturally shying away from pursuing it and taking an easier option.

It is not me being some pessimistic bore that exhorts that students will take the path of least resistance, and not engage in a range of learning activities of their own volition. It’s a human trait. The loss is most evident when the path of learning chosen from the inquiring mind is ultimately and ironically determined by what it already knows, and won’t make giant leaps in thinking if it simply doesn’t have the tools/knowledge to do so. It might ask itself questions that arise from the learning that are significantly removed from the current understanding, which is fabulous, but when it comes to the reality of trying to answer those questions, if the knowledge isn’t there that the mind can creatively mix and match to solve the problem, the path of least resistance will take over, and little learning will eventuate. This is an ironic corollary for those citing constructivism as a justification of discovery learning. By the way, if you’re interested in how constructivism has been incorrectly conflated with the need to make learning in schools an unguided affair, read this by Mayer.

It is at this point of the student mind flailing that the teacher would be expected to step in and scaffold the learning to accommodate the inquisitive philosophy, but again, in reality, it would be impossible to fill the gaps of a class full of discoverers. Take this sequence as an example from a ‘pure’* discovery context: a teacher initialises learning with a prompt which the student then learns about thereby opening the door to a tangential aspect of the learning, which the teacher then adapts to and designs necessary assessment of, including the interleaving of that assessment to ensure learning is actually happening. After several iterations of this, the student would find themselves significantly diverged from the initial teaching moment.

Even in a utopianly small class of 5 students, this becomes totally unmanageable, with the teacher effectively teaching 5 lessons in one. The teacher ends up working infinitely harder than the student. And that’s just for a class of 5. Also, the fact that the divergence is all student led could result in a very thin range of knowledge being learnt – only knowledge that is desirable to the student. It’s difficult to not sound patronising when I use the analogy of it being like allowing your child just to eat what they want and avoid anything that they don’t like, but I think it is a similar level of maturity that tends to guide most children’s/teen’s educational aspiration if left to their own devices.  

It is only an assiduously designed, unbounded and appropriately funded curriculum that could possibly facilitate a true discovery approach to learning for an individual, and we all know this just isn’t practical.

Another thorn in the side of discovery learning is that it is incredibly difficult to assess. We know there are problems with summative assessment, but it is still by far the fairest way of assessing a mass of people and providing relevant stakeholders with information that is wanted in selection processes (jobs, universities etc). Assessing discovery learning relies on subjective perspectives against criteria that must be adopted for a vast range of projects, which not only suffer greatly from marker bias, but also raise issues of parity when projects are so diversified: which tangents are more desirable, which show greater insight etc? Therefore, the validity of such assessment comes under question.

So it seems that despite the pressure from a misinformed public’s view of creativity, fashioned largely through emotive claims, which in a time poor schooling context has enormous implications for which components of curricula, by default, must be missed out, proponents of discovery learning really do want to have their cake and eat it too!


That’s the focus of the next post.

* ‘Pure’ discovery is where the jumps in learning can be cognitively managed as there is adequate knowledge to draw on.  

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

Should I get my students exams remarked? YES

Marking exams is hard. Cross referencing a student’s work to a criteria is wrought with difficulty, can be plagued by subjectivity, a lack of training, and tiredness. Perhaps of the greatest concern however for a literature student is the potential for the examiner to be inexperienced in knowledge of the text written about. The consequences are significant, and upsetting, and highlight the need for further discussions about the need for a different approach.

Here is a script I requested from a recent examination.

The question was marked out of 25, with 5 marks awarded to VSSPS. This student was awarded 10 out 20 for content, and 3 out of 5 for VSSPS.

To put the grading into context, it is being graded at a 4, achieving a score of 50%, a score that suggests this student, at GCSE level, has just, by the skin of their teeth, just grasped the content and ability to express it.

Yes, it is a little short, and misses exploration of the change in the Macbeths’ relationship in Act 3 and 4, excluding the response from the top band, but the discussion is also dense, concise and most certainly demonstrates a strong knowledge of the character and her purpose in the play. There is plenty of insightful response. The beginning statement immediately shows a strong awareness of the question, which was to discuss the change in Lady Macbeth in the play. The last paragraph in particular is wonderfully handled, seamlessly and intelligently weaving language discussion into the analysis of the character.

Here is the examiner’s report:

Higher achieving responses were often distinguishable by their discussion of the Macbeths’ relationship breakdown in Act 3. Some impressive responses discussed Lady Macbeth asking the servant for a chance to see Macbeth in Act 3 Scene 2,  covering when Macbeth sees Banquo’s ghost and the change in Macbeth’s language to Lady Macbeth (from “partner of greatness” to “dearest chuck”) was well noted – as was the change in her own language in the sleepwalking scene.

Weaker responses tended to leap from Act 2 to Act 5 without mentioning the intervening events or offering only passing reference to the changing dynamics within Lady Macbeth’s relationship with her husband. A lack of AO2 was responsible for limiting some candidates, as was some unnecessary exploration of contextual details.

EDUQAS Examiner’s report

It is clear from the examiner’s report that this examiner has been very literal with the awarding of marks, perhaps overly persuaded by the first two words in the second paragraph: ‘Weaker responses’, but considering the time given, and complexity of the response to the beginning and end of the play, how this is not a band 4 response I will never know. Maybe the examiner doesn’t know the text sufficiently, as it’s not a requirement to know all of the texts to be an examiner. Maybe the examiner is not skilled in understanding the subtleties of the text, again not tested before an examiner is deemed to be qualified.

In terms of VSSPS, again, I am stumped as to how the just passing grade again is relevant. The sentence structure is very strong, with vocabulary used to present the response with sophistication. There are some spelling mistakes, but look at where they are: in attempts at high level vocabulary.

You may disagree with my belief this deserves a higher grade. You may believe that this student has in fact only just presented enough evidence of knowledge of the character and the text overall to pass, placing them in a category of average with ‘some reference to meaning’ and that the presentation and structure of the argument again only justifies an average score. But I disagree, and I am an examiner.

My point is that which of us is correct actually isn’t important. The fact that such a large discrepancy between two examiners’ grading is.

Bigger than Ben Hur

When attending examiner training, consisting of an entire 1 day, and even that paltry allocation is usually cut short with people eager to get off early to catch their train, examiners are actively told that they will get stopped in the marking, but not to worry, as it happens to all, even the head marker. So let’s explore that for a moment. 300 examiners. Each examiner will be stopped at least once, probably twice, possibly 3 or 4 times. We could safely assume that surrounding the stopped scripts, the examiner has got 2 or 3 wrong also, due to reasons stated above. Being conservative, let’s say an examiner is only stopped once. Statistically, there would have to be an error in a preceding script somewhere along the line. That means there are 300 responses (questions) incorrectly marked. If we assume 2 stops, and 3 errors around them, the number balloons to 1800 scripts. In reality, an examiner is likely to make at least 10 errors (compared to what is deemed acceptable by head examiner) with their quota. That means that there would be at least 3000 scripts that have inaccurate grades, without doubt affecting students’ final overall grades.

Please take a moment to let that number sink in. And think whether one of your students is likely to be affected by that figure.

So, should you have your students work remarked? God yes!

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

Should examiners be expert in the subject they mark? Duh!

I know what you’re thinking. This is obvious. Well, think again.

An examiner has to provide evidence they are teaching in their field, but they don’t have to show they are any good at it.

Take the recruitment of English examiners for example. So desperate are boards to attract markers, rather than make it an attractive proposition financially to attract the very best people, they accept teachers who have been teaching for a minimum of 3 years. They literally advertise the positions as excellent CPD – in other words, you’ll be training and making all kinds of mistakes whilst students’ grades are on the line.

Examiners do not have to have read a certain text to be able to mark an exam on it. For example, the Shakespeare component offers students a range of Shakespeare plays to write about, but at no point are teachers allocated to specific texts to match their expertise in a particular play. Consequently, there is a strong chance that an examiner may have marked a script in the last GCSE exams on Othello, or The Merchant of Venice, or Much Ado About Nothing without any real knowledge of the play.

Even if they do know the play, if a student provides a quite nuanced response, is the unread or inexperienced teacher/examiner going to be able to appreciate the insight? I doubt it. Is the student’s grade going to be compromised as a result? Of course.

As teachers, we spend a considerable amount of time trying to push our brightest students to explore the subtleties of these great texts. What a shame that some of that won’t be recognised in exams.

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


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

The Necessary

One of the most uncomfortable truths about society is that it needs a necessary proportion of people to fail. It is a condition when we subsume a capitalist ideology. When competition is the ethos of survival, those who thrive are at the expense of those who don’t. Fortunately for most, because of the size of the population, the middle ground, where people are able to comfortably reside, is vast. It is whilst in this middle ground or class that the curse of knowledge can be rife, embodied and entrenched through comfortableness and security. It is the place where lofty assertions are made about morality, what it takes to be successful, and ironically, equality.

Education, whilst claiming to be, is NOT immune to this axiom of society. Whilst the overwhelming majority of educators involved in education want to believe it isn’t true, that their endeavors will eventually result in the success of ALL their students, the reality is unforgiving. The reason is due to the way success is measured.

Summative testing is essential to fairly assess from a domain of knowledge. However, designing summative tests that are reliably consistent from year to year is not easy to do, and to compensate for possible errors in design, examination boards moderate the results: if more than the average number of students have done overly well in the exams, it could be that the exams were easier than last year, and so the grade boundaries are raised. Conversely, if more than the average number of students don’t do well on the exam the grade boundaries are lowered, to compensate for the possibility that the exam was designed poorly. The key word is average. The average is ascertained from a very large sample of students over many years. A norm is established, and all results are referenced to it. When there is deviation from this norm, statistically it is assumed that there must be an error in the design of the assessment.

The issues with this are several: if teachers work harder to ensure that more of their students improve, it won’t be reflected in grades, as the grade boundaries will rise. If teachers share resources to assist others achieve, the grade boundaries will rise. When teachers learn from books how to improve practice, grade boundaries will rise. But perhaps the most pernicious reality of the norm referenced system, is that effectively your success in your students passing is at the expense of another colleague having students fail.

So when teachers quite rightly effuse with successful results, and by God I’ve done that, it’s important we demonstrate humility with the knowledge that it couldn’t have been possible without students who:

  • couldn’t access the curriculum
  • didn’t revise
  • had information processing difficulties
  • were badly taught
  • were excluded from school
  • had poor attendance
  • panicked in exams
  • have dyslexia
  • have little cultural capital
  • weren’t flagged to receive exam access arrangements
  • disengaged during KS3
  • had emotional issues that obfuscated attention to academic content
  • have low IQ

The illusion that education is equitable is considerably evident when we discuss vocation with our students. How many of us suggest students should aspire to be cleaners, rubbish-truck drivers, or work in low paid jobs? Yet, by statistical definition, some of our students are destined to do them – and society needs them. No matter how much we try to inspire with high expectations, it simply isn’t possible that everyone wins. There is no middle class without a lower class.

This has implications for the way schools communicate their successes. The recent euphoric correlation made between academic success and zero tolerance needs further context: excluding students facilitates the conditions for a cohort of below average students, somewhere else, someone else’s problem. I’m not suggesting that this is the motivation for the exclusions; understanding of the ideology is discussed here, but it is most certainly a by-product. The same can be said of any selective school – if you weed out the cohort destined to fail, those who remain will always be statistically better off. So I ask you, is that something to sing and dance about?

I’m Paul Moss. Follow me on Twitter @edmerger and follow this blog for more discussions about education.

Wise men, and rushing behaviour policy

Once upon a time, in a small isolated village of just 2000 people in the south of Utopia, there existed a single school, and in this school they decided that enough was enough with poor behaviour. They were fed up with the loss of learning caused by recalcitrants simply not following the school’s expectations, and their disruptive behaviours impinging upon others who either wanted to learn, or at least had some sense of it being good for them, if not now, but for their future. It was reflecting in poor results, which seemed to entrench a self-fulfilling prophecy plaguing the town that it would never amount to much, but it also just wasn’t fair to those who deserved a good education. This school, unbeknown to the general community, had an epiphany: it would implement a utilitarian policy, and weed out the negative influence, brand it as ‘operation engage’, aware of the obvious ironic possibilities with such a title, and follow the policy unwaveringly to its natural conclusion when students refused to cooperate with it. Contentedly, and assuredly, the school believed it had found the solution to its behavioural problems.  

Suddenly, in a short amount of time, the village found itself with 5 students who had been excluded from the school. This was a shock to the villagers, who had never witnessed such a situation before. A community meeting was urgently called, and at the beginning of the meeting residents expressed a wave of near hysteric concern: what would these students now do? Who would educate them? What would be the price for the community in terms of what these students wouldn’t be able to contribute to the village considering their now lack of education? Who would look after them during school hours? Who would counsel them in coming to terms with the blatant message that they were now different from the rest of the village, and who would be there to guide and monitor the inevitable emotional fallout from this awareness? Why were they behaving as they were to result in the exclusion? Why did they react to the enforcement of the rules differently to the other children? And how did a relatively minor infraction escalate so quickly to an expulsion for 2 of the students?   

Some in the community then turned their discussion to more philosophical considerations, and about what it meant to be an educator. They inquired whether the village was happy enough to believe that the children, who by definition required learning in every context, were mature enough to truly understand the consequences of their behaviours? or whether they had the skills or indeed capacity to modify and reflect on that behaviour when it was challenged? and whether the popularity of a progression model of curriculum to assist academic learning seemed contradictory when not being applied to behavioural and emotional learning, especially considering the contexts and family life of the 5 excluded children? They enquired as to whether the exclusion would create a culture of cyclical deviance, with the child likely to seek other forms of deviance or people stigmatised with the same label, and if so, what measures would then have to be put in place to prevent, or worse, manage those subsequent behaviours? And finally they wondered whether such an inflexible approach to infraction would produce a happy community in the long run?

When these questions were put to the school, the principal looked up with sincerity, and explained that even though the decision to implement their policy seemed harsh, that providing firm and consistent boundaries was a necessary strategy for all children, but especially for those children with the most troubling of behaviours. In fact, he suggested it was the most effective strategy to prevent this type of student from falling further into deviance, because what many of the students who have behavioural issues have in common is a lack of control of their emotions and a lack of experience and exposure to the application of consistent boundaries, boundaries that he hoped everyone would agree were important in raising a child. He said that the repeated behaviourist approach to ensuring rules were followed was in fact incrementally training students to take more responsibility for their own behaviours, the ultimate and collectively understood goal of citizens in the town.

He said that since the exclusions the school’s results had improved. In terms of the 5 who were excluded, the principal explained that after attempts to bring the students into line with expectations had failed, the school simply didn’t have the necessary resources to assign to the explicit and substantive training the handful of students, who for some reason or another couldn’t emotionally engage with what the school was offering, realistically needed. In terms of what the excluded students would now do during regular school time, again, the principal highlighted the need for him to be pragmatic, that the exclusions had resulted in substantial benefits to the majority of students now learning more, and reiterated that it was not in his capacity to be able to manage the outcomes in what now eventuated for the 5.

In terms of the philosophical concerns, he added that it was a utilitarian society by nature, in how capitalist ideology naturally excluded villagers from certain privileges and opportunities, and how exam grade boundaries reinforce this natural division and in fact require certain percentages of children to fail for it to work, and that as a corollary school life could be no different.  When one of the villagers rebutted about the cyclical deviance, the principal highlighted the notion of having high expectations, and that if you tolerate and thereby accept the deviant behaviour of the few, the whole suffers. He also said again that it was beyond his remit and that prospective offenders would be a matter for the law.

The principal’s message was assertive, and charismatic, and ostensibly logical, and the crowd of villages found themselves eventually acquiescent to it. Except one. Seated in the middle of the now encouraged and practically effusive group, she rose to signal their attention. Whilst respectful and understanding of the points presented, she had several queries: she was unsure as to why it hadn’t been a community decision to implement the utilitarian policy, and why the school had taken it on without consultation since it most certainly had ramifications to the community having 5 uneducated children wondering around; she wondered why the exclusions had been made before any significant researched remediation process had been designed; she wondered why preparations had not been made before exclusions were carried out as to what provision was on offer and how these children would now be educated, as it being a small village, the children couldn’t be passed off somewhere else; she wondered why, despite the acknowledgement of the utilitarian ideology, why people were content with it, and whether their complaisance would alter if they indeed found themselves to be one of the necessary few who missed the positive boundary, and what long term psychological effects this sense of failure may have for those subsequently branded; she wondered how proactive the school had been in ‘teaching’ behaviour, and whether school staff suffered from the curse of knowledge, unaware of the challenges that some students, and most likely the excluded 5, face in conforming to the expectations when they haven’t had sufficient practice in learning them; she wondered whether staff in the school had been given sufficient training to handle contexts where students were presenting behavioural cognitive overload, and whether they were adequately skilled in de-escalating those contexts and not exacerbating them, which usually resulted in the (unintended) entrapment of the child, pushing them into an emotional corner, and ultimately affecting the ramping up and accumulation of misdemeanours when reacting to that overload.    

To her there seemed a great many unanswered questions that made her surprised at the assertiveness of the principal.

The principal retorted that ideally he would be able to provide a mediation phase for students who were struggling for one reason or another to follow the school’s rules, a phase that was supported by trained counsellors who could help the student unpick where behaviours have emanated from and provide appropriate strategies to help students negotiate the feelings that have previously caused deviant reactions. He would love to able to provide several teachers who could assist students to catch up with missed content, so when they returned back to class they didn’t feel overwhelmed by their lack of knowledge and understandably feel inadequate, often resulting in a negative, almost defence-like reaction that often perpetuated the behaviour cycle. The reality was, according to the principal, that he simply didn’t have the funds to create such a pathway, a restorative pathway that would ultimately prevent exclusions from occurring. He also added that sometimes that within a school context the restorative path was in fact untenable, with some students, blighted by family context, essentially needing one to one counselling for extended periods of time, especially if homelife behaviours were continuously deleterious. And how could you only have one or two teachers working full time as ‘gap’ fillers? Would they be trained in every subject for every year level, and how would they know what has been missed, and what if there are 10 students out of classes at any one time?   

The woman, initially immovable at the seemingly rash direction the school had taken, now, with more information, felt a greater understanding of where the principal was coming from, but was still not completely convinced. She too conceded that the situation was not straightforward, understood the need for pragmatism and that there were no easy answers, but that this only reinforced her concerns that the policy had actually been enacted. Because of this, she wanted to reiterate again that the school should have thought a great deal more about the mechanics and logistics and responsibilities involved in implementing a radical behaviour policy. It would need to think considerably more about training teachers and students to engage with it. It would need to think considerably more about the amount of time needed to train teachers how to minimise behavioural cognitive overload. It would need to think considerably more about providing students with sufficient opportunity to learn and practice what is learnt in how to react to behavioural challenge, and especially how to react when faced with behavioural cognitive overload. It would need to think considerably more about what would then happen if a student still couldn’t respond to these learning opportunities, and have provision in place that facilitated that learning with the goal of getting the student back to mainstream education as soon as possible, where appropriate. After all, in such a small town there was no brushing the issue under the carpet.

The principal conceded that possibly the decision had been a little rushed, and vowed to adjust the current approach and initiate more training for both teachers and students. The community conceded that more funding HAD to go into the school to support such an initiative, and that it would need to design the necessary infrastructure for the students who were excluded. The meeting adjourned, and the folk of Utopia went home satisfied.

I’m Paul Moss. Follow me on Twitter @edmerger and follow this blog for more discussions about education.



The more we know about how information is encoded and then retrieved from our memories the more we can have faith in our teaching methods.

Teaching is a complex and incredibly difficult thing to do. Just look at how much discussion is generated by practically every single aspect of it, and how often these turn into heated debates. In the next 3 posts I will attempt to delineate my understanding behind existing pedagogical positions, positions that have certainly been mercurial over the past few years because new ideas about the encoding of information and how those encodings are retrieved have entered the mainstream. This new awareness of research into encoding, through its logic, makes for an ineluctable argument for teachers to carefully consider curriculum design more than ever before.

The more we know about how information is encoded and then retrieved from our memories the more we can have faith in our teaching methods. I will posit in the next 3 posts that there are 3 central aspects related to encoding and retrieval that should occupy every teacher’s mind: Engagement, episodic memory and semantic memory.



An important chiasmus: learning can’t happen without engagement, but engagement doesn’t automatically imply learning.

Learning can’t take place unless a student is engaged in some way with the content. It’s simply impossible – like being asked to give details about an event that you weren’t at. With this ostensibly modern epiphany, the notion of engagement then became education’s silver bullet, the antidote to traditional, stifling teaching that was diagnosed as the root cause of poor behaviour and poor academic performance. However, what constituted engagement became arguable, contentious and indeed polarising. 

Some educators took the term engagement to imply that students needed to be having fun, or that the curriculum needed to be less about the past and its outdated motivations for learning (the factory style model) and more comprehensively relevant to students’ lives. This deduction was then expanded to focus on skills that would be desirable for the future, a future conceptualised as an unknown that would demand adaptability and skills considered to be of the 21st century. Few could see the irony of criticising the past motivation and simply replacing it with another. For those who could, Ben Newmark mitigated and appeased the frustration in this excellent post about the purpose of learning, delineating the notion that learning is simply just good for the soul and needn’t have an extrinsic practical motivation.

In Deci, Jang and Reeve’s 2010 article, engagement is considered from two perspectives: STUDENT AND TEACHER PERCEPTIONS.

  • Students who felt their teacher was interested in their needs reported as being more engaged.
  • If they felt the teacher was interested in their success, they became more engaged behaviourally and emotionally.
  • Students who felt that their teacher was an expert in their field and knew what they were doing were more likely to be engaged in lessons.
  • Coercive engagement was not ideal but was still a form of engagement.
  • Teachers who thought students were engaged tended to give them more attention, and perpetuate a circle of engagement, but crucially, vice versa: teachers who thought students weren’t engaged gave less attention. 
  • Ideally a balance of structure and autonomy works best. If students felt they had some freedoms in what they were learning they self-reported as being engaged. (Further studies have provided a better understanding of this intellection and are discussed below)

Proponents of the 21st century model wanted to exploit this last notion of engagement being linked to autonomy, predominantly by placing the student at the centre of knowledge building as opposed to the teacher leading and directing the learning. The ‘guide on the side’ and ‘sage on the stage’ tropes became mantras. Technology found its niche as a conduit for such independent learning, and technology companies sprang up in the education environment, as ubiquitous forces, menacingly assertive, but inevitably pernicious in guise, inventing problems to suit solutions and dragging education into the competitive and lurid world of sales. Of course, not all technology companies were to be painted with the same brush, and not all acted so scrupulously. But while there have been many advances that have indeed made teaching and school administration easier, significant damage has been done.

A focus on independent autonomous learning also sprouted a strong constructivist approach to pedagogy, where students engaged in discovery or inquiry learning, predominantly through projects. Project based learning was designed to utilise the new understandings of what defined 21st century learning: an imperative on providing open-ended opportunities for students to develop skills that promoted independent adaptability above a range of other soft skills, such as cooperative learning, problem solving and creativity. The intention to create independent learners is admirable and understandable; few could argue with this aspiration, and when combined with visible student engagement, emanating from well-designed projects that appeal to students’ interests and usually involve a multiple sensory approach to learning, proponents of the practice appear validated.

Critics of the approach however, worry that teachers can be beguiled by levels of engagement and see them as proxies for learning. They cite research into working memory suggesting ‘inquiry’, ‘discovery’ or ‘constructivist’ learning is incompatible with the brain’s architecture, primarily because when a student searches for new knowledge (the chief characteristic of problem solving pedagogy) they effectively usurp the entire working memory capacity, rendering it physically impossible to problem solve at the same time. The push for engagement by passing over responsibility for instruction to the students places far too much stress on working memory, and then ironically becomes detrimental to learning. As discussed here, the number of interacting elements you need to process in working memory depends both upon the learning materials and the expertise of the learner. The distinction then between the expert and novice is critical in designing learning sequences.

Also of paramountcy in challenging the belief that engagement solely can be a proxy for learning is the research work done into storage strength and retrieval strength by Bjork, elucidated beautifully for the classroom context here by Joe Kirby. It is another aspect of encoding and retrieving that has significant implications for curriculum design, instructing teachers, and especially progress obsessed classroom observers not to ‘fall’ for the trap of assuming enthusiastic hard working students are doing any learning at all. Mark Enser brings to attention the notion that encoding of information and retrieving go hand in hand, and so whether the encoding is completed and indeed useful can really only be determined at a later stage in the learning process.  

It would seem apparent then that sequences that ignore the brain’s architecture potentially disadvantage all students but particularly those from backgrounds with low cultural capital, exacerbating the Matthew effect significantly. To determine your own position on how much autonomy versus structure you provide in your classroom it is vital that you learn as much as you can about the processes involved in the encoding and retrieval of information.          

And that takes us into the next section: episodic memory.

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