The Illusion of Progress in Longer Lessons

Can we be sure our observations reflect reality?

Can we be sure our observations reflect reality?

Learning is invisible, as David Didau loves to point out. We can only observe current performance, and if we take current performance as a guide to long term learning, we are deluding ourselves.

The fact that learning is invisible renders graded lesson observations invalid. It is the height of hubris to claim to be able to observe progress, or lack of it, in the space of one lesson. The pernicious practice of grading lessons has been abandoned by Ofsted, but it is still poisoning the lives of many teachers across the country, as this blog post illustrates painfully and vividly.

The obsession with the lesson as a unit of time in which certain fixed things must take place has had another damaging result: the introduction of ever longer lessons. A colleague in an independent school where I previously worked once lamented the thirty-five minute slots used there, and reminisced about the eighty minute lessons of her former state school employer. She claimed that the pupils really went on a ‘learning journey’ in those longer lessons.

This ‘learning journey’ is precisely the kind of illusion which gives the appearance of progress, while slowing down the process of genuine mastery. In eighty minutes all sorts of performances can be extracted from pupils, and after having ‘journeyed’ through so many of them, they will doubtless be ready to perform some beautiful hoop-jumping that will impress an inspector who is suffering from the hubris mentioned above.

But does all this wonderful performance mean that they have actually remembered anything? In fact, this long period of time spent on one topic doing all sorts of activities is precisely the worst way of acquiring mastery.

Long term remembering is greatly aided by spacing and interleaving. Spacing is doing small amounts of practice separated by intervals of time. When you do this, the fact that you start to forget the material and have to make the effort to recover it helps to forge long term memories. Interleaving works in a similar way, but instead of just space between practice, you do something different between each session. Doing something different is even more effective at causing that partial forgetting which is so useful in the long term for remembering (see Wrong Book, p192 and p228 for more detail on these principles).

In a traditional school timetable, with lots of brisk, short lessons in different subjects, spacing and interleaving is just part of normal business. Pupils continually have to make the effort to remember what they did last time, thus helping them to forge long term memories.

Of course, it’s hard work, and longer lessons could have a much greater feel-good factor, especially if the teacher has slaved away to make those eighty minutes a veritable theme park of thrilling educational rides. After all, one couldn’t actually expect them to work for eighty minutes, right?

UPDATE: Heather Fearn has written about this as well, here.

(Image from Wikimedia).


6 thoughts on “The Illusion of Progress in Longer Lessons

  1. I kind of agree!! I think that some lessons do merit longer and as a primary school teacher I had the luxury to choose when to spend a whole afternoon on a lesson. But this wasn’t to inflict some all singing, all dancing lesson on the children but rather that the time taken to, for example, create a DT project is not going to fit neatly into a one hour slot. Equally, a science experiment may take longer as part of the process is modelling and showing children what to do.

    During the last Ofsted I took part in, I got to speak to the Lead Inspector, and I told him that I was encouraging teachers to be flexible in their use of lesson times. Some lessons need not be longer than 10 minutes because it was an introduction to a concept or vocabulary that would then be repeated and reinforced. Other lessons would take longer. He was impressed and told the HT so.

    I appreciate secondary schools teachers don’t have that luxury of setting the school day for a class like we do but I really do think we need to move away from standard one hour lesson structures if we can. There is nothing inherently great about it. If secondary teachers want to teach the equivalent of two different lessons in one session or stretch a lesson over 2 or 3 then it should be a choice they make using their professional judgement.


  2. There are a couple of awkward things linked to this post which teachers aren’t encouraged to mention.
    First, a lot of the motivation for 100 minute lessons is about containing poor behaviour at lesson changeovers. Even in science, even for practical lessons, 60 mins is more than enough.
    Second, deep down, we all know that a pupil’s ability to do something on one day isn’t sufficient to say that they have really learned to do it. The idea of a “learning journey” with a neat destination each lesson is a horrible myth. Partly it’s been driven by the warped form AfL has taken in schools, but mostly we do lessons like that because they look good to observers.


    • They look good to observers who are addicted to the myth of visible progress. I wonder how many of them would give up that belief. Giving it up would involve admitting that they had ruined many a career based on no real evidence.


Thoughtful and reasonable discussion is always welcome.

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