What Is a Traditional Teacher?

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‘Happiness does not consist in amusement’

I was once asked to provide a definition of traditional teaching in one tweet, and I described it as ‘knowledge for the mind, and discipline for the will’. A traditional teacher sees their role as primarily the transmission of valuable knowledge and secondarily the formation of good habits. These two goals involve a struggle against the natural ignorance and arrogance of the human race. Education is a battle against nature, not an embracing of its providential designs.

Forming Good Habits

Knowledge cannot be acquired without good habits. A pupil who does not concentrate, who does not work hard, who interrupts teachers and peers, will remain both ignorant and arrogant. In order for knowledge to be acquired, egotism must be overcome; the pupil must begin to realise how ignorant he is and that others know far more than he does; he must realise that in order to obtain the knowledge which his superiors have mastered, a long, hard struggle will be needed.

A rigorous programme of academic study develops all four of the great human virtues: prudence, justice, temperance and fortitude. A pupil must make prudent decisions about how to spend his time best; he must do justice to his teacher by obeying instructions and showing gratitude for the gift of knowledge; he must be temperate, especially in his speech; he must show fortitude if he is to persevere in mastering academic subjects thoroughly.

These virtues are not acquired overnight, any more than a thorough knowledge of history is to be obtained by reading a few articles on Wikipedia. They are acquired by a persistent effort to overcome egotism, by repeated practice under the guidance of authoritative instruction. To stand much chance of acquiring them, we need a community in which these virtues are viewed as the norm, and in which there are public consequences for being imprudent, unjust, intemperate or cowardly.

Humanity is something which we must struggle to acquire under the guidance of an authoritative community, not something we are born with. This is much easier to understand when one is involved in the raising of children, especially when they are younger. It is abundantly clear to a parent of young children that they are struggling to acquire the habits of their tribe. They are imitating the speech and the actions of their elders. Without an authoritative example to follow and without the struggle to imitate that example, they would not reach maturity.

Transmitting Knowledge

Walking and talking are universal accomplishments for ordinary members of the human race. They are remarkable accomplishments; they are cognitive feats which are achieved through much struggle and repeated practice. They can be learned by most people without formal instruction, however, because the normal child is surrounded by examples and receives rapid feedback on mistakes, either because his words are not understood or because he falls flat on his face.

Even these most universal of human accomplishments cannot be described as natural. To be human is to learn from others, to depend upon others, to submit to the authoritative example of others within a community, in order to grow and mature.

This is even more true when we come to formal academic instruction, which opens new vistas to the mind which are outside immediate experience. Reading and writing are not universal. Writing with an alphabet which represents the sounds of speech is quite a recent invention in the whole span of human history. It is a remarkably flexible and useful one, which opens up vast new possibilities for knowledge and understanding. But in order to acquire it, formal instruction is required. Children may prefer to run around and play with mud and sticks. They should certainly have time for doing such things. But they will never learn to read by doing them. To learn to read, they must submit to authority and work hard under the guidance of instructors.

The traditional teacher recognises the importance of formal instruction, but also recognises its limits. He makes a clear distinction between work and play. Work requires self-discipline and effort. There is a place for play, once work has been completed. But they must not be muddled with each other, or neither one will be properly appreciated.

The traditional teacher works intensively to transmit the knowledge which the child requires to be inducted into the adult community. He sees in the child a human being that is not yet fully formed, and accepts the responsibility of forming the mind of that child by introducing him to the great human accomplishments in literature, history, science and mathematics.


Life is so much simpler when you recognise that hard work is needed to accomplish anything of value. That work can then be embraced wholeheartedly, and this leads to a deeper happiness than mere diversion or entertainment can ever bring. As Aristotle wrote long ago, ‘happiness does not consist in amusement’.

A traditional understanding of education means that both teacher and pupil know that they are doing something serious and important, on which the continuation of human civilisation depends. Everything they are doing has a purpose, and it is a purpose which goes beyond mere individual gratification, and raises every person to full human dignity, as a member of a community who makes a contribution to its present health and its future existence.

Discipline Must Be School-Wide

It takes a school to discipline a child. Good moral habits, like any other habits, can only be formed with repeated practice, and children will not gain the practice necessary if they behave differently in different parts of the school, or with different teachers. Consistency is essential, for practical and for moral reasons.

Doing the right thing needs to be a habit. If you are a polite person, you are in the habit of acting politely. You don’t have to think about such questions as ‘Shall I interrupt this person, or allow them to finish what they are saying?’ or ‘Shall I respond to this person’s points with personal insults, or with reasoned critique?’ Interrupting and insulting are alien to you, because you are in the habit of being polite.

How did you become polite? You weren’t born that way. Small children do not have good manners. They learn them, through the culture in which they mature. If that culture does not exemplify and demand politeness, then they will not get the practice necessary to form the habit. In fact, they will be practising rudeness, not politeness. If they are not reprimanded for interrupting, they will continue to interrupt. If only one adult in their life reprimands them for interrupting, but the rest tolerate it, they will grow up with bad habits.

For good habits to be formed, those in authority over children must act consistently, so that they don’t have to ask themselves how to behave with each adult. This is abundantly clear in schools where there is no consistent culture of good behaviour. Children will behave politely for one member of staff, and rudely for another. In this situation, they are not developing the habit of politeness, because they are not practising it consistently. It’s equivalent to having to give different answers to sums for different teachers. It’s confusing, it’s ineffective, and most importantly, it’s morally wrong.

It’s morally wrong because it does not teach children that there is simply a polite way of behaving which should be used in all circumstances. It is not okay to be rude to certain people, when those people are perceived to be weaker, or unable to exert their power over you. It is simply right to be polite, whether to the headteacher, the classroom teacher, the caretaker or the cleaner. Politeness is not something which is only required in relation to the power and position of the person; it is something that is always required.

When there is no consistent school-wide behaviour policy that is centrally determined and enforced by centrally controlled sanctions, children are learning the poisonous lesson that you can mistreat some people, as long as they don’t have the power to make you treat them well. Weaker members of the community can be abused, whether they are less experienced teachers or less popular pupils.

Without a thorough and consistent school-wide discipline system that is wholeheartedly supported by senior leaders, we are not only allowing bullying, we are promoting it, because we are refusing, in practice, to insist that there is only one right way of treating other people, whoever they are.

Against Analysis, or Why William Doesn’t Engage the Reader

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‘Good effort Bill! I give you five stars!’

Why is analysis introduced so early in the English curriculum? Instead of reading lots of challenging material that builds knowledge and vocabulary, from an early stage, pupils begin picking shorter texts to pieces.

You can’t do both, of course. You must choose between breadth and depth in the study of literature. At the level of general education, breadth is the important thing. Pupils should be building a wide knowledge of the great stories and characters that are their cultural inheritance. Building up such knowledge does, of course, greatly improve their own reading and writing, which depend so much on breadth of knowledge and vocabulary.

Requiring that pupils produce literary essays for GCSE is mistaken. If pupils are going to do this, they have to spend a disproportionate amount of time practising the skill of essay writing, and the vast majority will get no further than a shallow simulation of expertise. This is all time in which they could be acquiring cultural literacy that will serve them well whatever they choose to do next, whether it is A levels and university or a non-academic path.

What’s even worse is the amount of time that is being dedicated to analysis lower down the curriculum. Pupils who have never memorised a poem in their lives are being required to analyse the figurative techniques used by a poet. All of this time being spent on a narrow, specialised skill, is time lost to building up broad knowledge that is of use to everybody, whatever their later educational or academic choices.

It also gets very repetitive. You analyse imagery in year five, and year six, and year seven, and on, and on, and on. You spend many hours painfully squeezing out pretend literary essays, when you could have been learning so much about literature and history.

The premature emphasis upon analysis is an example of the ‘skills over knowledge’ approach privileged by progressive ideology. In this approach, it doesn’t really matter what you read, as long as you are developing ‘critical skills’. So by the end of eleven or more years of general education, you know next to nothing about important literature or history, but you can trot out phrases like ‘The author’s use of imagery engages the reader’. And that’s the conscientious ones. Often it’s more like ‘I think William’s language doesn’t engage the reader because it’s old fashioned’. There you go, there’s an evaluation for you. Right at the top of Bloom’s taxonomy, if you please.

The irony is that in the name of building ‘thinking skills’, progressive educators are wasting the time of pupils, and denying them precisely the knowledge that will enable them to think more effectively for the rest of their life. Pupils are being left with empty heads and the vague idea that any opinion is valid, as long as you can justify it. The spouting of ignorant opinions cannot be the basis of sound rational thinking. Reason must be rooted in reality: in objective knowledge.

During those eleven years of general education, pupils should be absorbing powerful knowledge, and the tests they take should be checking that they have learned and understood this knowledge, not making them ‘evaluate the success’ of a poet’s techniques. It’s really quite hilariously misguided to expect a sixteen year old to ‘evaluate’ whether Williams Shakespeare, Wordsworth or Blake have ‘engaged the reader’ with their imagery. Such evaluations can only be made by those with expert knowledge of poetry, which takes years of specialised study to acquire. ‘Evaluation’ should be left for postgraduates. Thorough understanding is the aim of general education.

Portrait of William Wordsworth by by Benjamin Robert Haydon (1842).

What Can We Learn from DI About Data and Assessment?

The best way to understand proper use of data and assessment is to look at an intricately designed course that makes use of it faultlessly. In other words, look at a Direct Instruction course. Within Expressive Writing, for example, there is a lot of data generated within each lesson, but it is not the teacher who makes use of it; it is the students. In other words, the students get the chance to self-correct when they find out during the ‘Check Your Work’ section of an activity that they have got some of it wrong. But there is no action for the teacher here, other than circulating and checking that the students are in fact self-correcting. There is no instruction in the DI script for the teacher to gather data about how many mistakes students have made and re-do the activity if there are too many. Evidently, the authors of the programme have judged that this is not a useful time for gathering that sort of data. The focus here is not on data-gathering but on repeated practice with rapid feedback.

The authors of Expressive Writing have judged that the time for gathering data about mastery and reteaching where necessary is not lesson by lesson, but at regular, well-spaced intervals. It is done through the mastery tests, which are every 10-15 lessons or so. It is at this point that the teacher makes decisions about what to reteach based on specifically identified gaps in student knowledge. These are the interim assessments of the programme. But they are not designed to look like any final assessment, such as American AP exams or English GCSEs. They don’t even look like the final mastery test at the end of Expressive Writing. Instead, these interim assessments are precisely designed to test the components of writing that the programme has taught up to that point.

What we have here is a highly effective programme for improving the accuracy and effectiveness of students’ writing that looks nothing like an English Language GCSE or an American AP exam. But there is no doubt that it will help students do better in such exams, because it will mean that they are able to punctuate correctly and write clearly, keeping control of their tense. It will mean that they are able to lay out speech correctly. It will mean that they are able to structure their writing effectively into paragraphs. It is courses like this which are the best antidote to the tedious and ineffective method that has become so common in England and America, whereby teachers believe that the best way to improve performance in summative tests is by repeatedly doing mocked-up versions of such tests.

DI courses are also an excellent remedy for the idea that teachers have to be continually gathering data and acting on it in every lesson. When a course is well designed with repeated practice of multiple strands built into it, there is no need for this sort of frenetic data gathering. It may well be that some students are getting some things wrong some of the time, but instead of trying to act on that in the moment by adjusting our lesson plan on the fly, we should have a robustly designed programme of instruction which takes this into account by building in lots of practice along with rapid feedback and opportunities for student self-correction.

And even when all students are getting everything right, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s time to move on, because a well-designed programme of instruction will continue practice beyond this point in order to make things really stick through overlearning.

There are no DI programmes available for much of what we need to teach. For example, there is no DI English literature course. But we should be looking to DI as the gold standard for how to design our own programmes of instruction. Whatever question we have about designing instructional sequences — whether it is how often to assess, or how to design assessments, or how to analyse assessments, or how much practice students need — we will find answers if we carefully study the masters at work by considering how these things are done by the authors of DI programmes.

[Image from Wikimedia Commons]

Fourteen Educational Myths

I am sometimes reminded by conversations with other teachers that there are educational myths which refuse to go away. We have to keep reminding ourselves that they are myths, or they begin to resurface and undermine our effectiveness. Here are a few which seem to be particularly persistent:

Myth 1: You remember things better when you find them out for yourself

Discovery learning only works when you are already an expert. At school level, pupils need fully guided instruction. This is because the process of discovery overloads working memory, preventing the retention of material in long-term memory. Pupils can be intensively engaged in project-based learned for hours and retain nothing whatsoever in long-term memory.

Myth 2: You learn best in your preferred learning style

This is one of the most persistent edu-myths. We may prefer certain ways of learning over others, but this does not mean they are the most effective. The most effective method of learning something depends not upon the learner, but upon the material to be learned.

This myth is particularly persistent because it appeals to the common sense truth that people are all different: we are all unique individuals. While this is true, the architecture of the human brain is consistent, and therefore the most effective ways of learning material are consistent across different individuals. We all have a limited working memory and an almost limitless long-term memory.

Myth 3: You can improve your generic ‘thinking skills’

Thinking depends upon knowledge. You can think well about something when you know a lot about it. Generic ‘thinking skills’ do not exist. ‘Brain-training’ applications and activities are educational snake-oil.

Myth 4: You can measure learning

A pupil’s performance within a given lesson or test is no guarantee that they have learned the material. They could score 100% on a test and have forgotten everything within days or even hours. Long-term learning can only happen through repeated, spaced practice, which cannot be observed in one isolated performance.

Myth 5: There’s no need to memorise now that we have Google

We must distinguish between knowledge and information. Endless information is available on the internet, but it does not become knowledge until we have assimilated it into our minds. It is only then that we can think with it. Consider language acquisition. Is someone able to express themselves in a language when they have to look up most of the words they need to use?

Myth 6: As a professional, I know how much practice my pupils need

As subject experts, we are particularly prone to underestimate how much practice our pupils need. The better we know something ourselves, the more we assume that others will learn it with little practice. As an antidote to this ‘expert blindness’, teachers should study the materials designed by Siegfried Engelman and his team and published by the National Institute for Direct Instruction, which have a proven track record of success, based upon the principle that lessons should be roughly 80% review and only 20% new material.

Myth 7: Pupils learn best when we focus on only one topic

It’s a lot more relaxing for teachers to spend a whole term focusing on only one topic, but it is disastrous for pupils’ long-term learning. We need to interleave current topics with frequent review of previous topics, otherwise pupils will not get the practice they need, and their memories of previously studied material will quickly fade. Once again, it is worthwhile to study Direct Instruction courses for an illustration of how to interleave old and new material effectively. DI uses a ‘track design’ which builds in frequent practice of previously taught material.

Myth 8: Pupils learn best through memorable experiences

We need to distinguish between episodic and semantic memory. Episodic memories are memories of events. Semantic memories are memories of information, independently of any associated experiences. It is the latter which we need to build in our pupils’ long-term memories. If we create lessons which are full of varied experiences, pupils will remember the experiences, but not the material which the experiences were supposed to teach. Their working memories will have been occupied by processing the novel experiences, and there will have been little room left for processing, and therefore for remembering, the material which we wanted them to learn.

Therefore, if we want to ensure maximum learning return on time invested, we need to establish routines and stick to them, so that pupils can pay the maximum attention to the academic material which we wish them to learn, and minimum attention to the method by which it is being learned.

Myth 9: Pupils need to learn from their mistakes

Whatever we do repeatedly, we become good at doing. We need to preempt errors to ensure that pupils make as few mistakes as possible. If pupils spend lesson time making mistakes, they become good at making mistakes. They are learning, but they are not learning what we want them to learn. Their misconceptions are being firmly embedded, creating problems which will be difficult to dislodge later on.

In a well-designed course of instruction, pupils will make few mistakes. Typically, in a Direct Instruction course, most pupils will score near 100% because all of the work they are doing has been carefully prepared through repeated practice to the point of mastery.

Myth 10: Understanding is what counts, not memorising

Pupils can understand something without having mastered it or being able to apply it fluently. The majority of our pupils understand, for example, that proper nouns need capital letters, but many do not use them consistently. This is because they have not practised giving proper nouns capital letters until it has become a habit. When something is thoroughly memorised and recall is automatic, pupils do not even need to think about doing it. We need pupils to practise not until they get something right, but until they can’t get something wrong.

Myth 11: It’s a waste of time for pupils to revisit content they have already mastered

The things we know really well are things that we have repeatedly practised even after we have learned them. This is what we do with our native language, until we know it so well that we cannot forget it. Imagine forgetting that a four-legged piece of furniture from which we eat food is called a ‘table’. We just couldn’t do it if we tried. That is the measure of true mastery, and it is achieved not by moving on to new topics rapidly, but by overlearning (see below).

Myth 12: We should move able pupils on quickly when they are getting 100%

The principles of repeated practice and overlearning apply to everyone, regardless of ability. The best way to understand this is to make an effort yourself to master material in an unfamiliar area. You are an intelligent professional. Just look how much practice you need to master that material to fluency! And if you get something right one day, does that mean you will get it right the next?

Myth 13: Pupils need to work in groups in order to develop their team-working skills

Team-working skills are normally developed through ordinary, everyday experiences. Lesson time must be spent upon activities which build knowledge that children will not acquire in this way.

When children appear incapable of working in a team, the causes of this are moral rather than intellectual. Schools need to teach children virtues such as self-control and perseverance so that their natural selfishness and laziness does not impede their ability to work productively with others.

Myth 14: Teachers need to allow the natural goodness of children to flourish

This is one of the most dangerous and damaging myths, not only in education, but more broadly in our culture. It derives from the ideas of the Romantic writers, who held childhood to be innocent and sacred, and believed that formal education interfered with this natural goodness.

On the contrary, children are not naturally good. They must be trained in good habits. They must practise self-control, for example, by being required to listen in silence to the teacher whether they like it or not. Over time, through repeated practice, self-control will become a habit, and this habit will serve them well throughout their life.

On the other hand, if we indulge children and allow them to do what they want, they will grow up selfish and lazy, and have unhappy, unsuccessful lives.

Update: Andrés Bello has translated this blog into Spanish here. It isn’t just in the English-speaking world that these zombies keep rising from their tombs!

[Image from Wikimedia Commons.]

Whole-School Poetry at GYCA

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The Charge of the Light Brigade by Richard Caton Woodville, Jr. (1856-1927)

At Great Yarmouth Charter Academy, we always have a poem or a speech which all staff and pupils are working on learning together. This has so many academic and cultural benefits.

Firstly, there is the obvious benefit of cultural capital being acquired by both staff and pupils. Learning classic poems or speeches from Shakespeare builds an intimacy with the language and symbolism of great works of literature that enables genuine engagement with the best that has been thought and said. It sparks curiosity and a desire to know more about where these great words, beautiful cadences and inspiring ideas come from. The curiosity thus created extends beyond the literary into the historical and the philosophical. I had some enlightening discussions about the Crimean War with our head of history last half-term which would not have happened had we not all been memorising ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’. This half-term, I’m curious to learn more about the Hundred Years War because we’re all learning the famous speech from Henry V that begins ‘Once more unto the breach, dear friends’.

Learning poetry and speeches is a shared, communal experiences at Charter. The poetry is heard in assemblies and during morning staff briefing. It is heard in the corridors and in the playgrounds. The walls of Charter echo with the sound of stirring words. When pupils are held up in their progress down the corridors, there is no need for this to be dead time. There are document holders scattered around the school containing the whole-school poetry, so even if staff haven’t quite finished memorising the poems yet, they can grab a booklet and lead some chanting while pupils are waiting to move forwards through the corridors. Moments which could have been filled with boredom, aggravation or just idle chatter are transformed into a joyful shared experience of great words and inspiring ideas.

The poetry which we learn together is chosen for moral as well as academic value. Classics such as ‘If-’ by Rudyard Kipling celebrate great human virtues such as fortitude: perseverance in the face of difficulties. These are the virtues which we want our pupils to acquire during their time at Charter, and the encouragement of the stirring words of great writers adds an extra dimension to the character building which we are doing at the school. When we talk to Y11s about their work ethic as exams approach, we can ask them if they are filling ‘the unforgiving minute / With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run’. When we are encouraging pupils not to give up in the face of difficulties and challenges, we can cite the courage of the Light Brigade, who fought against impossible odds and won eternal glory.

Learning poetry together also teaches us all about the process of learning itself. Pupils see staff struggling to master the poetry. Staff ask pupils to test them on their poetry, giving them the booklet so they can follow and offer feedback. Pupils see that it takes effort and practice to master anything, however clever you are. They are encouraged and inspired by their teachers’ efforts to learn the poetry, even when it is difficult to do so. The experience influences the methods of teachers because they are continually being reminded of how much practice is needed before something really sticks, which leads them to reconsider how often they revisit key knowledge. Are they teaching so that pupils really know it, or only nearly know it? The experience of struggling to master the whole-school poetry is a salutary lesson for all staff on how easily we forget something that we have not truly mastered, which leads them to reconsider their planning and delivery in the classroom.

Last, but by no means least, learning poetry together builds relationships between staff and pupils. Struggling together to master the poetry builds camaraderie, so that pupils feel that we are all on the same team. At breaks and during lesson changeovers, the shared experience of learning whole-school poetry makes conversation easy. We don’t have to make small talk. We can talk about Tennyson or Shakespeare, and what we’ve noticed about the words and ideas which we are working every day to absorb into our long-term memories.

Whole-school poetry memorisation is one of the most distinctive and most joyful aspects of the culture of Charter. It’s one of the things which guests most often comment upon. It’s an experience that cheers one up immensely on a grey January afternoon. Filling your lungs, projecting your voice, and belting out some classic poetry brings life and colour even when the North Sea fog has blotted it out, and when the sun is shining, as it has been lately, poetry recitation only adds to the happiness of working in this very special place.

Whole Class Feedback: Simple and Effective Recording

Last October, I blogged about our use of whole class feedback at Great Yarmouth Charter Academy. It’s a simple and effective approach which maximises learning return on time invested. Teachers read books regularly; they reflect carefully on what they read; they revisit key concepts as necessary. We call this the cycle of the three Rs.

When I blogged about this last year, I received a few queries about the systems which we use at Charter for keeping track of feedback. We have a simple, consistent, whole-school approach to recording feedback, which allows for maximum visibility and collaboration with minimal effort. Every department has its own Google spreadsheet in which they record their feedback. I created all of the spreadsheets and organised them within the the SLT team drive, but departments are encouraged to adapt the format to suit their particular needs.

These shared spreadsheets have many benefits. Because everyone can see everyone else’s feedback, they can lead easily into departmental discussions about key misconceptions that need to be addressed, as well as deeper long-term thinking about the curriculum. They also make line management very easy and streamlined, as SLT have all the information at their fingertips when discussing pupil work and teacher feedback with heads of department.

To make this more concrete, I’ve made an example spreadsheet based on the one used by our English department. I hope it’s useful as a tool for enabling other schools to adopt whole-class feedback. It’s one of the most powerful and effective policies any school can have for increasing teacher effectiveness and improving work-life balance.

Whole Class Feedback: A Winner All Round

Hoop jumpingWhole class feedback can be seen as a lazy option. Surely teachers are just avoiding the necessary work of giving individual feedback because they want to have more free time? But this view ignores the important point about opportunity cost, which must always be considered. Time spent on writing individual feedback in exercise books is time not spent on improving resources, or developing subject knowledge. Individualised feedback is enormously time-consuming and of doubtful benefit. In comparison, improving teaching materials will certainly benefit large numbers of pupils, and will continue to do so time and again, as the resources are used year after year.

This view also ignores the personal cost of excessively time-consuming practices which are of doubtful benefit. Teachers have families and friends. They cannot work every hour of the day and night; nor should they. If we want teaching to be a sustainable and an attractive profession, we must consider the work-life balance of staff.

At Great Yarmouth Charter Academy, we have introduced a school wide policy on whole-class feedback. As with everything at GYCA, we are aiming for consistency across the school, so that pupils know exactly what to expect. We are are also aiming, as always, for the maximum learning return on time invested.

As a school we require teachers to read all of their pupils’ books regularly and to make notes, for their own use, in a shared Google spreadsheet which can be accessed by their department and by the senior leadership team. The spreadsheet contains columns for notes which pertain to feedback to be given directly to the class as a result of reading the books, but the more important column is where teachers note feedback for themselves. What are they going to do differently based upon what they have seen in the books? What are they going to teach differently? What are they going to lay greater emphasis upon, or less? Which common misconceptions are they going to address, and how? How might their resources be further developed and refined?

The most important feedback from reading pupil work is not to the pupil but to the teacher. The greatest impact will be had if the teacher reflects on how to improve their teaching based on what they have read. For example, when I read the year ten English literature exams at the end of last year, I noticed that the pupils did not have a clear enough concept of setting. Therefore I updated all of our GCSE literature study guides to include a setting section, to make this more explicit for them. I am also making a point of mentioning the term more often in my teaching of literature, and guiding pupils to write analysis based around aspects of setting in, for example, the Victorian London of Jekyll and Hyde.

At GYCA, teachers have the time and space to reflect on their teaching and respond to what they are seeing in the books. They’ll be doing this in class, as well, as they look over shoulders during writing tasks, which are always done in silence, but the regular look through the whole class sets of books gives a particularly powerful opportunity to reflect on their teaching and how to improve it.

Another huge benefit of our light-touch approach to feedback is that teachers no longer need to be afraid of pupils writing lots and lots and lots. I’m sure many teachers reading this have had a sinking feeling as they watched their classes of thirty-two filling up the pages, and they pictured the piles of books which they would have to fill with extensive, personalised, multicoloured feedback as a result. In contrast, teachers at GYCA are liberated to get pupils to do lots of writing, and they know that they will be able to read it and discuss it without the burden of time-consuming processes imposed on them from above.

It’s a winner all round: lots of writing in silence, lots of guidance before and during that writing, lots of time to produce ever-better resources, and a reasonable work-life balance. That’s why we’re committed to whole-class feedback at Great Yarmouth Charter Academy.

(Image from Wikimedia)

Direct Instruction Principles for Guided Writing Practice

stower_titanic_colourizedI’ve been a fan of Expressive Writing for a number of years. It is exquisitely designed, and like all of Engelmann’s Direct Instruction programmes, the principles on which it is based can teach us much about how to teach effectively across the board. It is particularly relevant, though, to how we think about practising writing.

David Didau recently blogged about what can be practised in English lessons. He argued against practising writing essays or analytical paragraphs on literature, favouring instead the teaching of sentence construction, as sentences are the building blocks of good writing. He also argued that it would be a good idea to use plenty of oral practice of good sentences, as this would result in better retention of knowledge.

I agree that we need to practise the components of writing, and we need to use plenty of oral drill, but it doesn’t have to be either/or. In Expressive Writing, pupils go through a carefully designed, incremental sequence of practice exercises, moving from oral drill, to editing sentences, to writing sentences, to writing paragraphs, to writing multiple paragraphs. The ultimate goal of the oral drill and the written exercises is to enable pupils to produce extended narrative writing fluently and accurately. This has to be our goal with analytical writing as well, and we can use similar methods.

Guided writing practice involves a series of steps. Let’s take the example of writing about An Inspector Calls, J B Priestley’s perennially popular piece of socialist propaganda. Our ultimate goal is that pupils can produce extended analytical writing on a given theme or character in the play. They might have to answer a question like this:

‘How does Priestley use the character of Mr Birling to present ideas about capitalism?’

In a lesson where our goal was for pupils to write a paragraph on this topic, we would teach specific examples of how Birling shows a complacent attitude. We’d teach (or revise) the definition of ‘complacent’ of course – ‘smugly satisfied with your own achievements’. We’d have the class chant that definition, and ask multiple pupils to repeat it using cold-calling. We’d chant key quotations, such as ‘the Titanic […] unsinkable, absolutely unsinkable’. We’d model how to analyse such quotations orally, having the whole class and individual pupils repeat sentences such as ‘Using this image, Priestley depicts capitalism as doomed to destruction’.

All of this oral drill would be done briskly, and no pupil would be able to hide, because they would all be expected to join in when the whole class chanted a particular word, phrase or sentence, and they would know that they could be cold-called at any time. Only after having been through this fast-paced, interactive whole class teaching would we ask any pupil to put pen to paper. And when they did put pen to paper, they would start by copying an opening sentence, to ensure that they began as we intended them to go on. The opening sentence could be something like this:

‘Priestley makes abundantly clear to the audience that Birling’s confidence is misplaced, particularly through Birling’s reference to the Titanic as being ‘unsinkable, absolutely unsinkable’.’

This sort of closely guided writing practice, preceded by fast-paced oral drill, means that writing is focused, and pupils are continually building knowledge and vocabulary as well as the ability to write analytically. It can be extended to essay length as time goes on, but always under the guidance of the teacher.

If we want our pupils to write well, they need to practise writing, but it doesn’t have to be mechanical Point-Evidence-Explanation; it doesn’t have to be a confusing and futile exercise in building a mythical generic skill of analysis; it doesn’t have to be a pretend mini-GCSE to generate junk data. It can be satisfying, interesting and effective, if we apply the principles of Direct Instruction.


British English:
verb – practise
noun/adjective – practice

American English:
verb and noun/adjective – practice

[Engraving by Willy Stöwer: Der Untergang der Titanic]

Primary Literature: Telling Stories


Boy Reading (1843) by Albert Tikos (1815-1845)

I’m currently working with primary teachers across the Inspiration Trust to develop a content-focused approach to literature. I spoke to the whole primary staff about this project back in October – you can read my talk here. In this post, I’ll be looking at why a content-focused approach is more accessible, more equitable, more effective, and more joyful.

But firstly, what do I mean by content-focused literature teaching? Very briefly, I mean teaching that has as its goal the retention in long term memory of the content of literature: its plots, characters and themes. This goal is distinct from the goal of practising decoding to fluency, which is of course a necessary part of primary education (and sometimes of secondary too). It is also distinct from the goal of practising generalised ‘comprehension skills’ such as inference and prediction. I’ll argue later that a focus on content actually enables better inference and prediction anyway.

Content-focused primary literature teaching is accessible

A strong focus on the plots, characters and themes of literature is more accessible because fundamentally, it is about knowing the story well. Everything flows from this. Stories are the most memorable and interesting thing, for everybody. As Daniel Willingham has pointed out (in Why Don’t Students Like School), the human brain seems to be set up specially for the retention of stories. They sink in and they stay in the mind more easily than anything else.

When the teacher is focused on the story as they teach literature, she is using the most powerful and the most accessible tool for transferring knowledge to their pupils, whatever their ability level. When the teacher reads the story out loud to the class and explains it to them, she opens up new worlds to pupils of all abilities and backgrounds.

Content-focused primary literature teaching is equitable

This follows naturally from accessibility. A teacher-led lesson focused on literary content allows the whole class to share in the story. The whole class is building cultural capital. The whole class is building shared meanings that will stand them in good stead as they mature and encounter more sophisticated texts. No one is left behind.

This is always the paradox: when we insist upon differentiation, we embed disadvantage and make our education system less equitable. When we insist that everyone in the class listens and learns the same material, we reduce the gap between the haves and the have nots.

Content-focused primary literature teaching is effective

When the focus is squarely on the content of literature, children’s knowledge and vocabulary will grow, and this is the primary means by which comprehension can be improved. While there is some benefit in general strategies for improving comprehension, they are, as Willingham points out here, easily learned and do not require much practice. The vast majority of our ability to comprehend is based upon what we have stored firmly in our long term memories. So focusing on this in our primary curriculum is the best way to ensure success in the short and the long term. It will lead to better SATs results, but more importantly, it will lay firm foundations for a lifetime of better understanding and ever increasing knowledge.

Our brains, tuned as they are to stories, naturally infer and predict, and their ability to do this accurately is primarily based on how much knowledge is stored in long term memory. The conclusion is obvious. If we want our pupils to be able to infer and predict effectively, we must give them more knowledge.

Content-focused primary literature teaching is joyful

If we want to inoculate our pupils against literature, the best way to do this is to turn every story into a vehicle for practising comprehension strategies or doing SATs test preparation. But when we forget all that dry, dull and empty formalism, we find that there is a wealth of fascinating stories that every pupil can enjoy. Content-focused primary literature teaching becomes a journey of discovery which includes everybody in the class, even the teacher. And you get better SATs results into the bargain.