How to Think an Essay: Part 2 of 3

Part one is available here.

I have argued that knowledge need to be organised; a collection of disparate facts is not enough to help our students write great essays. Organising knowledge starts with our selecting the most important our students need to have and just giving it to them. I know we want students to be independent and draw their own conclusions. But we have to build up to that; it doesn’t come out of nowhere, especially if we want their interpretations to be valid and meaningful.

So, where do we start? All too often, we make the mistake of planning backwards from an assessment. For example, I might know my students will have to write a response to this at the end of the half-term: how does Priestley present Mr Birling in An Inspector Calls?  (This could just as easily be a specific essay in RE or history or science.)

There is a danger I focus my teaching on that one topic so that I can ‘show progress’ etc. But what I really need to do is to plan backwards from the essential knowledge that underlies the whole thing – in my example, the whole play – so that my students’ knowledge becomes flexible and can be applied to a range of specific questions. That’s not just so they can pass exams; it’s so that they genuinely do understand the play and can reap the personal rewards that real learning always brings.

When I teach An Inspector Calls, I give my students the key knowledge right away. I tell them that the most important thing to know, the anchor that we will attach all our other thoughts to, is this: Priestley wrote the novel to expose the injustices of the class system. I tell them. They don’t work it out or guess. I don’t want any confusion here. We unpick what those words I just used really mean. We pull apart what being part of a class system in 1912, when the play is set, meant for different kinds of people and we unpick how, by 1945, when the play was written, two world wars had begun to break down the barriers between the middle and working classes. Priestley saw the possibility of a greater and more permanent change to British society.

From that moment on, whichever character, technique or minor theme we explore, we attach it to that big idea. I use a lot of diagrams to help me. Having a working wall in the class with that idea at the top helps students to map connections as we go along. But they also have their own notes and diagrams. More on that next time.

This approach works in other subjects too. We start with the question: what is the most important underlying concept we’re trying to teach? And underlying concepts can be well hidden and difficult to work out. I think we probably all need to confer with our departments to make decisions about that. I bounce ideas off my friend and colleague, Sam Gibbs, all the time. Without her, I would be far less of a teacher, that’s for sure. If we don’t work together, there is a danger our teaching becomes surface, somewhat disconnected, and that nothing will really stick.

All of this brings me to another aspect of organising knowledge that is oft overlooked: writing organised, meaningful sentences. We need to teach writing all the time, every lesson, as we go along, in order to adequately prepare students for the essay at the end. I’ve written about this before so this serves as either an introduction or a brief reminder.

Firstly, we can use sentence fragments – taking small pieces of sentences that students play with in order to ‘do the thinking’ and express themselves on paper. Hochman & Wexler (The Writing Revolution) suggest we might try something like this (this is my version).

In explaining why Gerald, an upper class philanderer in An Inspector Calls, behaves the way he does, we might offer these fragments in which key elements are missing. It encourages students to think about connections and relationships:

                         is self-indulgent in that he

                         lacks self awareness because

                         allows Priestley to explore the idea that the upper classes are

One student wrote this:

                        Gerald is self-indulgent in that he allows himself to take advantage of                                        someone vulnerable.

                        He lacks self awareness because he doesn’t see himself as a philanderer; in                              fact, he seems to think he’s a sort of victim of circumstance who couldn’t                                  really stop himself for having feelings for Eva. Nothing is ever truly his fault.

                       Gerald allows Priestley to explore the idea that the upper classes are also                                 failed by the class system, despite seeming to be in control of it, because they                           have to live with their failed relationships and guilty consciences.

I deliberately don’t ask them to include quotes here because students need to understand the message itself, the argument, before they can go about including ways to support or exemplify it.

In creating these fragments, I think we teachers also get clearer and more fine-grained about what matters most. It forces us to zoom in on the key ideas that really matter so that our students do the same, something that is vital for low structure builders (see Make it Stick for an explanation) for whom working out what matters most is often very difficult.

And here is one from Doug Lemov. This is about the use of appositives. An appositive is a way of renaming a noun in a sentence. It sits next to the noun it renames. In each of these examples, the appositive is in the centre as an embedded clause (there are other ways to construct them!)

A bird, a tiny blackbird, kept visiting the garden.

A bird, a huge great eagle, was poised in a nearby tree.

A bird, the most important bird in the whole clan as it turned out, began to address the crowd.

I like this technique because it’s a fairly easy way to build something that feels quite sophisticated. It also encourages students to think of more than one way of saying essentially the same thing. Having options like this has to be one of the ‘holy grails’ of using language: our students need to have more than one option easily available to them if they are ever to express themselves with subtlety and nuance.

And writing well does not require the kind of ‘shoe-horned in’ fancy vocabulary that students don’t really understand. I can’t count the number of times I read the word ‘harmatia’ in relation to Macbeth while marking essays over summer. If they can really own that vocabulary, I have no objection. But many of them can’t and it stands out in their work as a mad attempt to points-score rather than a genuine articulation of a thought. One student wrote, “it was because of his harmatia that he did what he did because it wasn’t very nice, his harmatia.” Time would have been better spent on allowing this student to develop their expression through practising with sentences than worrying about vocabulary. Barbara Bleiman writes wonderfully about this here.

So, we have a big cohesive idea to pin everything on and we’re developing writing in short bursts as we go along. In the next instalment, I’ll look at how we might go from writing sentences to actually planning and writing the essay itself.


How to Think an Essay: Part 1 of 3

It may seem rather a strange title but it seems self-evident that in order for any of us to write an essay we first of all need to be able to think an essay. I’m going to explore an approach to this as a way of unpicking potential challenges for students and how we might address them. Essay writing is such a key procedure for students to learn but it is also bloody difficult and oft misunderstood.

For too long now too many of us have considered essay writing as a transferable skill. We hoped that by handing out PEE structures, or versions thereof, that we might engender in our students the ability to make coherent sense out of pretty much anything.

We were wrong.

We were wrong because we we underestimated the importance of knowledge. If you think essay writing is mainly about skill, try this thought experiment. Imagine writing an essay about a knowledge domain that you would consider well outside your personal expertise. For me, I am imagining having to write an essay about property laws in France. I know nothing about this. I therefore can’t even begin to write an essay despite knowing a great deal about essay writing.

So, step one is ‘acquire knowledge’. The more, the better. And that means more than just reading something and making notes. We can’t marshal our knowledge, take charge of it and give it shape with our careful explanations until two things have happened. Firstly, retrieving that knowledge (the vocabulary, the concepts, the mental models) has become relatively easy. That requires retrieval practice and interleaving so we build and rebuild our mental schemas until they have some shape. For more on these topics, see my blog here.

I see this as a bit like sculpting. A sculptor may get the idea of the shape hiding inside her piece of clay on first glance, but this is not enough yet for her to express her vision. She has to go back, have another look, begin to find the contours and see the details as well as the whole. In time, she has a perfectly realised set of thoughts captured in clay. To write a meaningful essay, we need to be similarly invested over time. Rushing to essay writing before students have had time to learn knowledge and explore it may be the single biggest thing we have got wrong.

It has serious consequences because it forces us, probably in the name of some upcoming data-drop, to cut corners and offer scaffolds that students wouldn’t need if they had had sufficient time to explore their growing knowledge.

And no matter how great the scaffold, no student can use it efficiently to reach their full potential if they don’t fully understand what they are putting into it. When PEE type approaches fail, we tend to blame the students for not listening closely enough or not following our instructions. I would suggest these students simply don’t have anything to say yet or they don’t have enough to say. No scaffold in the world can save them from that.

So, every time students write essays, there has to be sufficient time given to knowledge acquisition. In my own subject (English), I don’t just want them to know about the text itself, that’s actually pretty useless if they know nothing about the landscape of the society in which it was created. Autobiographies are great for helping students becomes immersed in a particular time and place (thanks to Jules Daulby for sharing this tip with me.) Access to high quality non-fiction texts are essential for students to be able to write about any fiction text.

Secondly, we need to have organised our knowledge. This is a step we often miss out with our students, or we attempt to do this for them without explaining our approach.

I teach English. Pretty much every English teacher who ever taught ‘Of Mice and Men’, a popular choice until it was taken off the syllabus and a useful example here, taught something about the American Dream. They taught something about the Great Depression too. The students have knowledge of these ideas. That’s great but if their knowledge is inadequately organised, they may underestimate the importance of these concepts.

If you asked me, what is the most important knowledge to have about this book, I would say that it’s mostly about the failure of the American dream or, more broadly, the failure of American society to create fairness and equality. But if you asked students, which knowledge is the most important, most will start talking about characters. After all, if we’re not careful, or students will have spent more time unpicking George and Lennie’s relationship than talking about big concepts about society. Perhaps we don’t even touch on big concepts at all with some students because we wrongly believe they won’t understand them.

This is a problem because it denies students their right to complex, interesting knowledge. But it’s also a problem when it comes to essay writing.  An essay based on character (not characterisation, which is different) will fail to get the higher grades because the student’s thinking is not conceptualised enough. But it could have been, if only we’d given our students access to rich, carefully organised knowledge.

Next time, I’ll explore ways of capturing and organising knowledge in preparation for essay writing. I’ll consider what we need to do first as teachers as well as how we help students organize their thinking more effectively.

Some ITE providers are suggesting that ‘retrieval practice’ is just ‘recapping’ by another name. I disagree.

I recently attended an education conference in which an ITE provider spoke about her work in teacher training. (I won’t name the individual or the event, which I thoroughly enjoyed, because the point of this is merely to start – or perhaps continue – a conversation.)

In the speech, it was asserted that much supposedly ‘current’ research is actually just a re-hashing of old ideas. Certain examples of this were given and I’d like to offer my take on just a couple of those here.


Assertion 1: retrieval practice is just recapping by another name.

I see a real difference between these two things, although they do, of course, overlap. Recapping is intended to activate students’ prior learning so that they can build connections to new knowledge.  Retrieval practice is a specific, evidence based approach which does not just optimistically activate prior learning in the hope that connections will ‘happen’, it actually consolidates memory, allowing a child to better recall information. Retrieval practice is a very specific and a more effective method than recapping.

In fact, the term ‘re-cap’ comes from both old French and Latin and basically means ‘to summarise’ and to ‘restate by heads or chapters’ Recapping then, only requires headings and chapters and is therefore, primarily about summarising. (a thank you to Mary Myatt here for me teaching me the importance of etymology!)

But a summary is not enough. In order for information to make that precious and difficult journey into long-term memory, students need to over-learn. The need to repeat the detail, not just the headings in order to build the complex, integrated schemas that make up deep learning.

‘Recapping’ is a blanket term for a number of approaches teachers might use in order to summarise prior learning, many of which may not actually be that helpful in securing the new knowledge in long-term memory. Students may not even be particularly involved in the recap, making it even more problematic. Short on time, a teacher may simply summarise pointers from a previous lesson while students listen passively. A recap might also come in the form of a video, which goes over prior learning and from which students may take notes. But is this a good way to learn? It does not involve retrieval; it is the equivalent of re-reading and highlighting, neither of which is very effective.

Retrieval practice means something very different to just recapping. This is more than just ‘semantics’ – there is a real difference in the learning intention if we talk about ‘practicing’ (this requires a lot of repetition) to be able to retrieve specific information. Re means ‘again’ and trouver means ‘to find.’ So, retrieval practice means, ‘to repeatedly find the same information again and again until it sticks.’ this approach tends to come in the form of knowledge quizzing and free recall, where students come to the information ‘cold’ and have to consciously, effortfully retrieve knowledge from memory.

If done well, this approach allows learning to be deeply incorporated and powerful schemas to develop over time. All students can participate in low threat, high challenge quizzing so that they build cohesive knowledge and can use that as a spring-board to independence, critical thinking and creativity.

It doesn’t mean that retrieval practice is simple or a panacea. (See M Rivers’ blog, referenced below.) The knowledge we test has to be carefully thought through and appropriately packaged to ensure that retrieval practice is effective, but done well, it is extremely powerful.

There is a world of difference between recapping and retrieval practice.


Assertion 2: Interleaving and revisiting learning are the same thing.

I feel some more etymology coming on… Revisiting is about taking a trip back somewhere, isn’t it? It isn’t clear from the word alone whether that means you up and move to Italy because you liked Lake Como so much you want to live there, becoming absorbed in Italian culture and history and developing a deep knowledge of its language. Or, whether it means an afternoon spent in Cornwall sitting on the beach because you quite liked it last time you were there. They’re both very nice things to do but you probably wouldn’t learn  much from sitting on the beach for a few hours, whereas moving to Italy would probably teach you a great deal.

And that is the problem.

Deep learning requires more than just a quick trip back to something we did last lesson. In order for knowledge to be deeply explored and integrated, students need to spend time with that knowledge.

If a unit of knowledge, perhaps, ‘the Victorian Era’ or ‘Gothic Literature’ or ‘Electricity’ were a room, how would we want learners to interact with that space?

Here is a suggestion: how about expecting students to do more than just peek through the window a couple of times? How about asking them, having looked through the window the first time, to return and actually walk inside? How about getting them to a point where they have metaphorically kicked off their shoes, examined all the ornaments, poked around in the dark corners, and systematically emptied all the cupboards? We might then invite them to look out of another window to see what else is out there and how it connects to the space they’re in.

‘Revisiting’ then, needs to be thorough. The word, revisiting also doesn’t tell us much about how often we should return to knowledge or what we should be doing between trips.

The forgetting curve, discussed by Ebbinghaus back in the 1890s, teaches us that we’re going to quickly let go of information if we don’t ‘catch ourselves’ in the act of forgetting and do something about it. Spaced practice, where students periodically re-attend to knowledge enables us to hold on to that knowledge more powerfully. This tells us that students need to return to their new knowledge more than once.

That brings us to interleaving. The assertion was that revisting and interleaving are the same thing. Again, I disagree. Interleaving means deliberately putting ‘leaves’ (pages) between other pages in a book. In education terms, this means mixing up the knowledge and skills (procedural knowledge) that make up the curriculum, rather than doing one unit of learning after another.

Our knowledge of interleaving came originally from motor skills research from the sports industry, but Robert Bjork’s work has shown that the same principles apply to conceptual learning too. Block practice looks good in the short term and feels more beneficial to the learner, but interleaved practice is more effective over the long-term. So, students need to interrupt one unit with others. They need to leave the metaphorical room from our earlier analogy before they have finished their exploration. They should spend learning time elsewhere and return to this room at frequent intervals over time, building deeper knowledge as they go along. More research is needed on interleaving to pin down the most effective ways to go about it, but the direction of travel is clear.

Revisiting is a loose term which simply does not explain the complexity of interleaving clearly enough. They are not the same thing.

Making assumptions like the ones above, that research is only ever a re-hashing of something old and that the ‘answers’ to how students learn are multiple and already known is, in my opinion, a dangerous game. So was the speaker’s implicit suggestion that teacher trainers are not, and do not need to be, ‘academics’ in the strictest sense. ITE providers, in my opinion, do need to engage with research and explore language more carefully. Many of them already do, I know.

I’d like to end by thinking about six words written on the speaker’s presentation slide about ITE provision. The words were intended to show that student teachers on ITE courses have the freedom to explore ideas and draw their own conclusions about what approaches they think work best. It said, “we don’t tell them what works.”

I read those words very differently. The talk, as I understood it, had sought to undermine evidence-based approaches as having nothing new to offer. I took ‘we don’t tell them what works’ to literally mean that an evidence-based pathway, which guides trainee teachers to best practice through engagement with our current, shared understanding of learning, is not in place and not even especially desired.

Trainee teachers are novices, who learn very differently to experts and who are often on courses lasting only a year. They don’t have the knowledge yet to evaluate what works and what doesn’t – that’s sort of the point – and they don’t have much time to figure these things out for themselves. I think telling them what (probably) works is not just ok, it is absolutely essential.

Telling teachers what (probably) works does not prevent them from thinking critically about the evidence-based approaches they learn about. There are always qualifications and caveats when dealing with research and that is as it should be. But it seems that too much emphasis is being placed on novice teachers having to work things out for themselves, in a short time-frame, when the outcome is so, so important because we’re literally talking about children’s lives. I find that deeply worrying.

Zoe Helman

Co-Founder of English-Ed


10th October 2018

For an outstanding visual guide to exploring the above, see: Weinstein, Y., Sumeracki, M. and Caviglioli, O., 2018. Understanding How we Learn: A Visual Guide. 1st ed. Oxen: Routledge

Other references:

Weinstein, Y., Sumeracki, M. and Caviglioli, O., 2018. Understanding How we Learn: A Visual Guide. 1st ed. Oxen: Routledge

Myatt, M., 2018. Curriculum: from Gallimaufry to Coherence. 1st ed. Woodbridge, UK: John Catt Educational Ltd.

Barak Rosenshine:

Brown, P., Roediger, H.L.and McDaniel, M. A., 2014. Make it stick. 1st ed. USA: The Belknapp Press of Harvard University Press.

See Michelle Rivers’ superb guest blog here:

Robert Bjork speaks about his work here:

Richard E Clark, Paul A Kirshner and John Sweller discuss more on guided instruction here:



Please don’t involve students in writing rules about behaviour by @z_helman

I recently had a Twitter chat with a gentleman who advocates behaviour contracting with students. He thinks children should be involved in rule-making rather than having rules imposed upon them. At face value, the idea of inviting children to help us write the rules can seem enticing. It instinctively feels like a reasonable thing to do. However, I think the issue is far more complex and that, ultimately, students co-creating the school rules is really not a good idea. To explain why, I’m going to try to deconstruct some of the common reasons given for why it might work in order to explain why it won’t work.


Argument 1: We involve students in creating the rules in order to make them feel valued.

There is an immediate problem with this in that the primary purpose of a behaviour policy is to facilitate lots of good behaviour and reduce or eliminate poor behaviour. This may be the wrong time and place, then, to worry about making students feel valued. (It is always important that students don’t feel de-valued but that is a different construct.) A behaviour policy needs to be neutral, focusing on behaviour and not the relative ‘value’ of the human concerned.

But there is another problem. And to highlight it, I’ll turn to an anecdote from my own teaching experience. I worked in a school that required teachers to set up written behaviour contracts with each class. My lesson was period 5 on a Friday. By the time they came to me, one particular class had been contracting all week with every single teacher and they were now dab hands at it.

“Are we doing contracting, Miss? We’ve got a really good argument for what you should include.” They wanted me to write this into our contract:

Students who have done well all lesson (interestingly, I was allowed to set the criteria for what that meant) should be allowed to graffiti the teachers’ cars after the lesson on a Friday afternoon on their way home, providing they only used paint that will easily wash off. Poorly behaved students should have to do the car-washing so that teachers don’t have to.

Well, what was I to say to that? I have to admit, I was fascinated by their arguments. They said it would be motivational for students, that it would allow students to vent frustration at the end of the week to be in a better mindset on the Monday. They said that staff and students could laugh over the graffiti and that it would be a bonding experience. They had their arguments well prepared.

Thinking of my colleagues and my own beloved mini, I said no to their request.

“What’s the point in all this contracting if none of you teachers is actually going to let us have a say? It’s a sham.”

Good point. This was one of the more extreme examples but teachers had been refusing them things all week long. And that is the problem. It is disingenuous to pretend that you are going to allow students to have meaningful input when really you probably can’t. As teachers, we lose credibility when we promise things and don’t deliver, and losing credibility is not a great start to tackling behaviour. Students have crazy ideas because they’re creative human beings and that is great. But rules are a serious thing and this is not the time for complication or creativity.

Even if we use a restricted list of items for students to agree or disagree to sign up to, (picking five rules from a list of ten, for example), what do we do about the rules the students reject? Do they no longer count? What if they’re quite important?

And different lists of rules in different classrooms is particularly awful. I hope nobody is doing this any more. It is a ridiculously hard thing for any human to remember a different set of rules for each room they visit during the week. Children need to be remembering the content of their learning, not the fact that this is the classroom where they’re not allowed to tap on the desk or chew their pen.


Argument 2: We involve students in writing the rules so that they buy in to the behaviour policy because then they will be more likely to follow it.

Let’s just break that down and see how it looks in real life. If the assumption is true that students behave better if they co-create the rules, that would mean something like the following sequence would have to kick in (the order may be debatable):


  • Student misbehaves
  • Student self-regulates, realising their mistake in breaking a rule
  • Student makes a conscious connection to the significance of having broken a rule which they personallyagreed to abide by in the past
  • Student is so moved by this, they stop misbehaving


Or this:


  • Student misbehaves
  • Teacher regulates, commenting on how the student has broken a rule they personally agreed to
  • Student makes a conscious connection to the significance of having broken a rule which they personally agreed to abide by (rather than just answering back or sulking or pointing out all the other people who are doing it too, whatever ‘it’ is)
  • Student is so moved by this, they stop misbehaving


In either scenario, and especially the first one, we’re asking a huge amount of a student who is struggling to manage their own behaviour.

We’re also misunderstanding why students misbehave in the first place. This, for me, is a fundamental point: students don’t break rules because they didn’t get to make the rules. They break them for a great many reasons, but that is not one of them. Proponents of argument 2 are trying to solve a problem without first understanding its true, messy, complicated causes. Instead, they rely on a dubious proxy that, if we give students some influence, they’ll buy in to our rules and self-regulate, as if students had the knowledge and skills (procedural knowledge) to do so all along but were just exercising their democratic right not to bother.

I once asked a group of students if it were more important to them that they made the rules or if it were more important to them that the rules worked (as in, increased good behaviour and reduced poor behaviour.) They liked the sound of the first one until they heard option 2. The students immediately and unanimously agreed that they just wanted something that worked.

It is only an anecdote and therefore not evidence but it may go some way to dispelling the idea that students eternally crave involvement in rule-making. They don’t in my experience. They crave what works. It keeps them safe from other students’ misbehaviour and more likely to manage their own. Students don’t like misbehaviour. They like safety. And that can include a safe refuge from their own personal propensity for silly, immature behaviour that lands them in trouble and makes them feel bad.


Argument 3: We involve students in writing rules so that we teach them something about democratic processes or concepts

Well, a look back at argument 1 shows us that the process often deceives students into thinking they have more say than they do, which doesn’t seem very democratic (although may well reflect reality!!).

The process of contracting in a classroom is also a poor model for what happens in real life (a contract for, say, a job or a mortgage) where companies and banks are broadly unlikely to change their terms for an individual. This sometimes happens but it is not routine.

The process of contracting with students in school does not accurately represent what happens when we vote democratically in real life either. UK citizens do not vote to pass laws; we have an entirely different process for that. To teach students about democracy and politics, we need to put the behaviour policy to one side and explore other curriculum opportunities, of which there are many.


* * * * * * * * * *


The three arguments above are not evidence-based. It may feel good to involve students in everything but feelings and instincts can be misleading. And we should not prioritise our own desire to feel liberal and progressive (I am a’trad’ teacher but a political lefty, by the way) if doing so doesn’t work for our students. The thorough review carried out by Tom Bennett is clear that students need systems that are designed by (adult) professionals and implemented fairly, rigorously, consistently and as neutrally as possible. Students do not need to participate in writing the rules.

And let’s not forget, adult professoinals dedicate themselves to studying behaviour; it is not an insult to children to say that the decision-making shouldn’t be left in their hands.

But some people still don’t like the idea of ‘strict’. Imposing a policy on students still feels a bit too draconian. (Let’s not get carried away – Draco was an ancient Greek who decided petty theft and idleness should be punishable by death. Nobody is saying that any more.)

But an appropriate, strict behaviour policy, calmly enforced, might actually be the very best way to love a child, especially a vulnerable one, that we have available to us. Children who misbehave often have a huge amount of responsibility in their lives. They may be raising siblings, raising themselves, caring for a parent. The most loving thing we can do for them when they come into school is to say, “it’s ok, we’ve got this.”

We can give students a carefully designed, safe, structured universe, using all of our knowledge of behaviour so that, just this once, the students don’t have to be responsible, in any way at all, for their own safety. They literally just turn up and follow our game-plan. And everyone else follows it too.

So if a student is coping with a difficult home life, or ADHD, ASD or any number of things that just make navigating daily life that bit harder, at least they have security at school. Rules are created and enforced, appropriately, by adults. All the time, every time. Rules don’t have to be different for different classes or year groups, or suddenly change when the school cohort changes in September. That kind of structure, for themselves and for other students, is an absolute gift to a vulnerable child.

On top of this, we can explicitly model brilliant ways of behaving and allow students to practise them. Behaving is about carrying oneself in a particular way; manners are cultural and contextual so they have to be modelled and practised and learned. We can show students how to challenge someone else’s opinion, how to ask for something they need, how to move along a corridor. We can then simply call them out for it when they don’t behave appropriately.

None of this is oppressive. These high expectations send a clear message that we trust that deep down each student is brilliant, and we’re not going to let them disappoint themselves no matter how hard they may sometimes try. We’re going to guide them, with trust, support, honesty and knowledge to becoming the great people we insist they will become.

Zoe Helman


13th October 13, 2018



Doing Away With Differentiation

Many of us have wondered how exactly we square the fact that children can get cleverer with the need for differentiation. If children really can get cleverer, which they can (hopefully, I will demonstrate this below), does differentiation really help, does it hold students back, does the answer lie in how we do the differentiating?

Well, I’m going to go all out and suggest that we do away with almost all of our differentiation entirely. There are exceptions where genuine differentiation may be required, like when a dyslexic student might use a laptop, for example. And sometimes we need to do things differently for students with Downs Syndrome, for example, or other very severe difficulties with learning. But the vast majority of differentiation is a waste of time.

We seem to misguidedly treat the situation as if differences exist between how students learn. We provide different tasks as if there are differences in how people learn and therefore we should adapt our teaching accordingly. The learning styles debacle was a horrible example of this wrong-headed approach.

It simply isn’t true that we are all that different at the most fundamental level. We aren’t. We are a species who, fundamentally, all learn exactly the same way. We are all human. We all have a brain. Neurons fire.

There is no disputing the fact that if we look at prior attainment, some students in the class have done better than others. Maybe they have been doing so for a long time. It can look like an objective ‘truth’ that one student is ‘cleverer’ than another. But like so much of our instinct, this can be deceiving and the truth is much more complex.

To explore this further, I’d like to try to answer this question: why do some children underachieve in the first place?

There are so many reasons. There are social reasons, there are medical reasons, family reasons. Sometimes teachers don’t teach well enough. That’s a particularly uncomfortable reason but it’s true all the same.

In his excellent blog, David Didau points out that medical conditions like glue ear can affect children’s early learning experiences. Glue ear is not a learning difficulty in itself but it may appear like one if we rush to the wrong conclusions. It matters because rushing to the wrong conclusions can condemn a child to the bottom set and that in itself may ensure they never leave it.

And there are other things than can affect a child’s early education: developmental delay; poor executive function, which can make concentrating and paying attention very hard, and any number of other problems.

Firstly, these problems may resolve as the child grows so we ought not assume they will be there forever. Secondly, even where problems persist, the way that any one human being learns is essentially the same way as every other human being. We have existing knowledge and we attach new knowledge to what we know already, forming ever greater and more complex schemas as we go. This is what leads to critical thinking and creativity. See Daniel Willingham talk about the importance of knowledge here.

At least, we will all learn this way if we’re allowed to, if we’re ever exposed to the greater complexity we need for deeper learning. Not all of our so-called ‘weaker’ students ever get this chance. Our labelling misleads us into thinking less of people. We may jump to conclusions based on their social class and the way they talk. We use terms like, ‘less able.’ But they are just as capable, if we let them, of developing great knowledge and insight. We just have to teach it to them.

In other words, the problem is not a ‘lack of intelligence,’ as such.

There are several theories of intelligence but a popular one recognises two types of intelligence: fluid intelligence (the ability to be aware, think, reason) and crystallised intelligence, which, if the theory is correct, depends on what we know and can access from long-term memory. Part of being intelligent then, is knowing stuff. And some students may not yet know ‘enough’ whatever we determine ‘enough’ to be. But that doesn’t imply they can’t learn, if we teach them.

The gap is a knowledge gap. We must fill it.

How do we do this?

Let’s look at what not to do first:

We can’t do this through traditional differentiation. ‘All/most/some’ or ‘must/should/could’ are, in my opinion, two of the worst catchphrases ever to make it into the world of education. They should be immediately banned for the heinous crime of completely misunderstanding the problem we’re all trying to address. They cause teachers to waste time, and it is a waste of time, coming up with different tasks for students, or different levels of task, which simply serve to ensure the students we are most worried about get the least opportunity to grow.

Differentiated questioning is just as bad. It places a cap on what students will be able to do before they’ve even tried. Breaking up a complex question into parts so that we build up understanding slowly is a good thing, and works for all students, but assuming certain children can’t handle the tough end of the question spectrum is fundamentally flawed.

And, finally, if we’re going to hand out sentence starters, we need to ensure students intentionally practice with them (more on deliberate practice below) until they are internalised and can be used creatively and independently. Having to provide the same starters over and over again because the tool has not been internalised by students is proof it is not working.

What does work:

Our ‘struggling’ students, the vast majority of them, if not all, need more opportunities to learn and remember knowledge. They don’t need less, or simpler knowledge. That’s an important distinction. They need more high quality, challenging knowledge and they need it even more than the other students.

They can handle it too. Students who have been held back for years relish the opportunity to bask in someone finally believing in them and offering them deeper, more interesting material to play with. Things that are tough to wrestle with are always interesting, especially if we add in the passion of a great teacher.

The best way to start building knowledge is through direct instruction. That doesn’t mean talking at children and telling them what to think. If you’re still not sure about the value of DI and currently favour discovery learning, please read this by Barak Rosenshine. In just 9 pages, he might well change your life.

Our students also need more practice. Deliberate practice is key to building automaticity and enabling students to be more creative with the ideas they learn about. (Anders Ericsson wrote a great book about this.) Students simply don’t get enough of this as we race through the curriculum at break-neck speed.

For example, a knowledge of vocabulary and sentence structures, which are known so intimately that they spring into consciousness with little effort, is what allows great writers to create wonderful expressions and brand new meanings. Our students deserve access to this world and we can give them that through carefully building knowledge and generating practice (For more on how to help students with writing, Judith Hochman talks about ‘The Writing Revolution’ here.)

What about the students who are achieving? Is this going to be too easy?

The good news is that everyone, whether they are ‘underachieving’ or not, benefits from lots of knowledge and lots of practice explaining and exploring it. Overlearning is a term that was coined a long time ago but is still relevant today. If we want our students, all of them, to build sophisticated schema, we need to give them the opportunity to practice, to return to things, to seek out the detail and make deep connections.

And all students need teachers to be aware of cognitive load. Learning in the first instance should be pretty effortless. We want students to have enough desirable difficulty to ensure recall happens during retrieval practice, but want to stop at the point that working memory may become overwhelmed. It should be hard enough but not too hard. Judgments like that are not easy to make but it does get easier with experience.

In fact, what we really need is to think of those students who appear ‘weaker’ as the barometer for whether our teaching as a whole is working effectively. If they’re not learning then nobody in the class is learning as well as they could. That’s the mantra I live by and it serves me pretty well.

I’ll finish with a very brief anecdote: when I was a child, I never had stabilisers when I was learning to ride a bike. My dad thought I could do fine without them and he was right. I didn’t fail to learn. I learned just fine. I had knowledge (my dad gave me lots of tips) and I had the opportunity to practice. That is really all it takes.


Here’s a summary of things we need to give to all our students, instead of differentiating:


  • Direct instruction – tell them something. You’re the expert so impart knowledge (this is not spoon-feeding. I’ll be writing a blog on the difference between these two things in the near future.) Your students can only learn once they have some knowledge. Discovery learning invites students to needlessly reinvent the wheel over and over again and, when they fail to do so, we have to give them the ‘right answers’ anyway, after the fact. Pointless.


  • Spaced practice and interleaving – my blog, here, mentions these but for more, see the work of Robert Bjork.


  • Alternate between abstract concepts and concrete examples of those concepts to build secure knowledge and understanding


  • Retrieval practice – my blog, here, explains the difference between retrieval and recapping or revisiting. It is very specific and we need to get it right.


  • Overlearning – repeat things. Even the most able students will benefit from the new insights they gain from repeated exposure to the same knowledge and more practice at exploring and explaining it


  • Don’t dumb down material or tasks but do keep an eye on cognitive load so that students’ working memories aren’t overwhelmed.


  • Metacognition– this is tough for novices but ‘thinking about thinking’ (exploring the steps involved in planning/approaching complex tasks etc), can help students get better faster.


  • Use modelling, worked examples and exemplar answers to scaffold student’s thinking.  Thinking diagrams (concept drawings, mind-maps, Venn diagrams and flow charts etc) are great for helping students capture and organise their thoughts and can be used in across all subjects




Zoe Helman


15th October 2018