‘Without Contraries there is no progression’: or 7 principles for pairing words with images


William Blake was a visionary poet. As a four-year-old he claimed to have seen God at his window and angels walking around the fields of London. As an adult visions continued to come to Blake, notably when he claimed to see the ‘world in a grain of sand / And a Heaven in a wild flower’. Blake’s visions inspired his poetic vision, particularly his illustrated children’s books, Songs of Innocence and Experience. In these deceptively child-like poems, Blake saw through the systems of corruption behind social injustice and spoke for the poor and the weak at the margins of an increasingly mechanised world.

But there is another sense in which Blake can be considered visionary – in his innovative etched relief printing technique, which combined powerful words with vivid images. Whilst many are familiar with lines from London, The Chimney sweep and The Garden of Love, less have probably seen the accompanying illustrations. Those who have not contemplated the totality of Blake’s inked copperplates, painstakingly coloured by hand, have not really experienced the wholeness of his work. For in his beautiful marriage of poetry and art, Blake enhanced the meanings of his writings through his illustrations whilst appealing to our innate pleasure in combining sensory experience, centuries before dual coding was even a thing.

One wonders, then, what Blake would make of technology today, and the array of software that, in theory, makes it possible to do in minutes what it would have taken him countless nights straining under candlelight to produce. I am, of course, referring to the possibilities afforded the modern day teacher to combine words and images to convey meaning, and I say in theory, because in practice it seems to me that not enough of us know how to properly harness the benefit of pairing words with images to help improve our students’ learning. Whether through ignorance (I doubt dual coding is included in a lot of training), or lack of basic technical know-how, (almost certainly not included), many teachers risk missing out on the additional boost to learning that adding graphics to text or audio explanations offers.

Now I know there are some who question the value of using software tools like Powerpoint in the first place, wary of how they can stifle teaching, or add an unnecessary burden to an already burdensome workload. These concerns are valid and fair. My interest, however, is not so much about the efficacy of technology use per se – I use Powerpoint if I feel it will enhance my students’ learning and avoid it if I think there are better, more economical means. This post is more about how to take advantage of the way our minds take in information, regardless of whether we teach through the medium of slides, lessons handouts or simply writing on a whiteboard and talking to our students.

What Blake intuited with his etched relief printing method, we now know a bit more about through scientific study: namely, that we can encode information from two different sources or channels at the same time. Handled correctly, rather than compromising our understanding or overloading our limited working memory capacity, the simultaneous presentation of visual information with verbal information (the spoken word or the written word converted into sound) can significantly increase our ability to learn. Such an approach, known as the modality principle, increases the chances of integrating new information into existing schema by exploiting natural cognitive processes. But even if it is the written words that are paired with images – and thus processed through the same channel – research demonstrates that done the right way, combining them still gives a significant boost to learning.

The phrases ‘handled correctly’ and ‘done the right way’ are important. Like many lessons learned from research and applied in the classroom, it is not quite as simple it often appears to apply theory to practice. In this case adding an image to a slide, or putting a graphic on a handout sound like things that everybody does already, doesn’t it? The size, placement and type of graphic, however, really matters, as does the moment in which it is deployed, the purpose of the teaching point itself and, of course, the make-up of the learners and their levels of prior knowledge. It is also important to be mindful about what we mean by words, as to our minds the spoken word (audio) and the written word (text) are not the same thing, and they are different rules that apply to each. Too often, these nuances are missed, and the results are poorly designed materials that not only run the risk of looking naff, but also fail to improve student learning or, worse still, have a negative impact on understanding.

Here is an example of where the pairing of words and images was probably not all that helpful in terms of improving student understanding. It might be entertaining, but it is unlikely to make a difference to students’ of income tax, or Einstein for that matter!


Principles for combining words and images in teaching

Below are 7 principles that I think should help teachers make better use of visual aids in their teaching. Some are concerned with the arrangement of images, whilst others focus more on the types of graphics used and how students can engage with them in different ways to maximise their learning. It is worth pointing out that whilst I have tried to give enough detail to help teachers think and plan their use of visuals, I have inevitably still had to omit a great deal of nuance to prevent the post from becoming too unwieldy!

  1. Pair words and images





Generally speaking, you can improve your students’ learning by adding visuals to written text that you display on slides, handouts or on the whiteboard. This principle is particularly effective for students with low levels of prior knowledge, who benefit the most from the combination of words and visuals to build coherent mental models.

  1. Choose images carefully





Just choosing any old graphic is unlikely to boost student learning. In fact, in many cases a poorly selected visual accompaniment to a verbal explanation might actually depress learning. The main point here is to avoid unnecessary visuals that increase extraneous demands on students’ limited working memory capacity or that distract them from their learning (e.g. school logos); well intentioned, but irrelevant pictures (e.g. actor when explaining tragedy); images designed simply to entertain or amuse.

  1. Keep images near text


It is generally better to place your visuals next to or as near to any written text as possible and to avoid the situation where students have to wait for the next slide, or turn over the next page to find the graphic that goes with the words that you are explaining. This is not only incredibly frustrating, but also significantly increases the demands placed on the working memory.

  1. Keep visuals simple

four step51

The temptation when selecting images is to find the most impressive or realistic visual example possible. However, studies repeatedly show that simple visuals are best to communicate the teaching point clearly and concisely. Implementing this principle may be made more difficult by the fact students often tend to favour elaborate and realistic visuals, even though they do not necessarily improve their learning. Unless the point you are trying to communicate demands it, though, go for simplicity over complexity, such as by opting for a flat 2 dimensional image over a more elaborate 3D option.

  1. Strip out the text


In some circumstances, it is better just to avoid any words on or around an image and instead simply explain the visuals verbally. This is particularly true when the images are of concepts that are pretty self-explanatory, such as introducing a picture of a new vocabulary items. In these instances having to read additional words whilst listening to an explanation puts an additional burden on the same visual-spatial channel. The same is generally true of other visuals and graphics like diagrams, where it is best to reduce any accompanying text. In situations where that diagram or explanation is lengthy or complex, however, the addition of some text is helpful in reducing cognitive load by providing memory prompts.

  1. Get students drawing


Studies have found a significant boost to learning when students are asked to produce drawings whilst reading textual information, much more so than other more common means of engagements such as writing summaries. It is important to ensure drawings are accurate, either by providing regular feedback on them or by showing an accurate completed picture looks like in the first place. Cognitive load can be further eased by providing partially completed drawings, such as the opening stages of a timeline or some of the connections in a causal relationship diagram. This method is particularly effective when the learning relies on complex problem solving.

  1. Show the connections


Use relevant visuals to help illustrate relationships and connections in your lesson material. The table below highlights the four main types of explanatory visual, and give examples of what this might look like in practice.

Four types of explanatory visuals (from: Evidence-Based Training Methods)

Type A visual that Examples
Organizational Illustrates qualitative relationships in the content Tree diagram

Concept maps

Relational Summarizes quantitative data Pie chart

Colour on a map to indicate temperatures

Transformational Depicts change in time or space An animation of how equipment works

A series of line drawing with arrows to illustrate blood flow

Interpretative Makes abstract ideas concrete or represents principles A simulation of feature changes by gene alterations

An animation of molecular movement with changes in temperature

In his 2009 paper ‘Research-Based Principles for Designing Multimedia Instruction’, Richard E. Mayer notes that ‘people learn more deeply from words and graphics than from words alone.’ Mayer’s assertion is obviously concerned with optimising the way the mind takes in and stores new information in an effort to improve learning, in our case for the students in our classes. Whilst Blake’s intentions for combining words with images were in many respects very different – more aesthetic and more political – he too understood the importance of harnessing the fullness of our sensory inputs to learn new things.

“If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.”

William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

Thanks for reading.


Clark, R. (2015) Evidence-Based Training Methods

Clark, R. and J. Sweller et al (2006) Efficiency in Learning: Evidence-Based Guidelines to Manage Cognitive Load

Mayer, R.E. (2009) Research-Based Principles for Designing Multimedia Instruction


What’s in a word?


Ever picked up a class, in say year 10 or year 11, and been surprised that they don’t seem to know some pretty fundamental terms relating to your subject? For an English teacher, those words might include ‘metaphor’, ‘simile’, ‘juxtaposition’ or perhaps even ‘fronted adverbial’ – the kinds of subject specific terminology you would hope, nay expect, students to have pretty much nailed down by the time they are 14, 15 or 16 years old. I have experienced this many times in different schools.

This is most definitely not about bashing KS3 or KS2 colleagues. I’m fairly sure that when I taught more year 7 and year 8 classes, I encountered the same thing, and I’m guessing that a year 5 or year 6 teacher probably experiences something similar too. Likewise, it wouldn’t surprise me if the teachers who inherit my classes find themselves having to explain the same core terminology again that I thought I had successfully taught the previous year. It’s a seemingly endless cycle.

But why does this happen? Whilst the forgetting curve is inevitably partly to blame, I suspect a fuller explanation lies in the way most of us approach teaching vocabulary and some of the assumptions we routinely make about what our students know. This is possibly more prevalent in the secondary setting, where depending on the subject you teach, it can be very difficult to have an accurate grasp on your students’ vocabulary levels. Yet it is crucial that we do because it is those tier three words that carry the fundamental ideas and concepts upon which other knowledge and skills are then built.

It is not hard to understand why we often make assumptions about what students know in relation to vocabulary knowledge, or any other kind of knowledge for that matter. For a start, words like metaphor and simile are supposedly covered at KS1. My 7-year-old daughter, for instance, can provide an example of a simile and a rudimentary definition because she has recently been doing poetry in class. But I think there’s a big difference between covering a word in a unit that is then subsequently assessed, and really knowing that word more fully, including its intricate web of conceptual links and associations. Coverage is quite clearly very different from learning, but it can be too easily conflated.

The other probable reason why we teachers assume too much about our students’ knowledge base is because we are usually so reliant on very unreliable proxies to make our inferences. Too often, assessments of students’ linguistic fidelity are bound up in rubrics designed to assess more generic skills. As a result we can fall into the trap of assuming that a level 4 in this, or 85% in that, corresponds to a certain level of understanding of the subject more generally, including all its attendant terminology. The result is that we can end up building on sand if we assume that our students are secure with core subject concepts (and the words that encapsulate them) when they are not.

If a teacher realises that her class doesn’t really know what an image or imagery is – as I have found every year of teaching question two of the iGCSE! – she will decide to teach that concept and how to apply it correctly in context. The problem is that by the time the next year rolls around that understanding often disappears and a new teacher comes along and finds herself in the same position. What I think is needed is a clearly-defined vocabulary programme, detailing exactly what subject-specific terminology students are expected to have learnt and by what stage. Without such a system, and a reliable form of assessment to underpin it, we run the risk of continuing to make unfounded assumptions about what students know and therefore continually waste our time re-teaching the same thing.

As part of our school’s initial attempt to construct such a coherent, school-wide vocabulary sequence, I have been carrying out some exploratory work with our current year 7. I have designed some core knowledge quizzes aimed at getting a more accurate picture of what specifically our students do and do not know across a range of subjects, including history, art, geography, music and religion. A key component of these quizzes is vocabulary, so there are questions asking for definitions of foundational terms like ‘primary colour’ or ‘portrait’ in art, ‘monarch’ or ‘civilisation’ for history and ‘island’ and ‘hemisphere’ for geography.

It is early stages at the moment, and I may blog in more detail in the future, but for now I want to share with you one small insight gleaned from the process so far, which in many respects perfectly illustrates some of issues I have touched upon above. The definition in question is ‘island’, a word I’m sure most would expect the majority of 11 and 12 year olds to be able to define. Everyone knows what an island is, right? So you might think, yet the students’ responses seen to suggest otherwise. As you can see from the definitions supplied by one year 7 tutor group, we might need to seriously challenge our assumptions about our students and their levels of understanding, and think more carefully about what it means to truly know a word.

Correct responses:

  • ‘Land surrounded by water’
  • ‘Land that is surrounded by sea on all four sides’
  • ‘It is a bit of land surrounded by water’
  • ‘A bit of land surrounded by water’
  • ‘A piece of land surrounded by water’
  • ‘An area surrounded by a sea of ocean’
  • ‘A piece of land surrounded by water’
  • ‘A piece of land surrounded by water’

Mostly correct responses:

  • ‘A large or small part of land not connected to anything’
  • ‘A broken piece of land’
  • ‘A small place where, people or animals may live, but is surrounded by the ocean’
  • ‘A part of land away from a country’
  • ‘A big or small place covered with sand and surrounded by the ocean’

Not really correct responses:

  • ‘Land, flat land’
  • ‘An abandoned land’
  • ‘Some small land on the sea’
  • ‘A small place in the ocean’
  • ‘A piece of land covered by water’
  • ‘Is a place in a country near / on a beach’
  • ‘A tiny bit of land’
  • ‘Surface’
  • ‘An island is a cut off region of land that has little civilisation’
  • ‘A piece of land’
  • ‘A place’
  • ‘A big bit of rock formed after volcanic eruption under water’

For me, the crucial aspect of understanding an island is that it is a piece of land surrounded by water on all sides. Whilst we may quibble about other aspects of a successful definition, these strike me as being the defining features of what make an island an island, particularly for children at this age. Based on this admittedly loose definition, 9 students out of 30 got the correct answer, 5 get the benefit of the doubt, whilst 12 don’t really manage to define an island successfully. 4 students did not provide an answer at all. What this means is that, even if we say that 2 of the students who failed to answer could define the word island correctly if asked more directly, then there would still be around 50% of the class who either cannot articulate their understanding of what an island is, or that harbour some pretty serious misconceptions about it. Neither of these situations is desirable.

Now, you could argue that this doesn’t really matter, or that were I to probe the students more thoroughly with more specific questions than simply, ‘define the term island’, the results would be different. Maybe; maybe not. If, however, we park that for the moment and look at some of the student responses in more detail we begin to see a couple of important, and I would argue potentially damaging, misconceptions about the nature of islands. The first of these seems to be that islands are ‘abandoned’ places that are ‘cut off’ from civilisation. Perhaps adventure stories in films and books lead to this particular misunderstanding. Then there is the suggestion that islands are ‘tiny bits of land’ or ‘small places’. Again, popular depictions of island settings may create this association.

Whilst in many cases islands are indeed small and remote places cut off from people and more recognisable signs of society, there are also plenty of very good examples of islands that are not, such as the very place in which we live. If you stop and think about the implications of this for a minute, you realise they are potentially quite significant. For instance, if you don’t understand that islands are surrounded by water, you might not fully appreciate the challenges and opportunities this might pose for a group of people who live on one. Likewise, without a foundational grasp of the nature of islands, you may not fully understand the importance of Britain’s island status, in relation to both its history and its present, such as its ongoing relationship with the rest of the European continent.

It is for these reasons and those that I have written about before that I think the priority for developing student vocabulary, particularly in our school context, is improving the quality of teaching in relation to tier three, not tier two, words, at least in the initial stages of building a school-wide approach. When you consider what it really means to know a word you see how important it is to teach subject-specific vocabulary as well as you possibly can at the first time of asking, so as to try and avoid having to repeat the process every year ad nauseam. Obviously, improving students’ wider academic vocabularies is extremely important too, and it may well be possible to do this simultaneously given the time and support necessary to do it justice. Perhaps, though, it is better to leverage the effects of solid, consistent tier three terminology teaching first and then scale up to address the wider language gap later on.

After all, ‘no man is an island’.

Evaluating CPD: hard but not impossible

Screenshot 2016-04-09 08.22.31*

At a time of shrinking budgets, there is a need for reliable formative and summative feedback about the efficacy of professional learning. It is not acceptable to assume that, however well intentioned or well received a school’s CPD programme is, it is necessarily right for it to continue. If it is not having an impact on student outcomes, whether in the narrowest sense of achievement or more broadly across other competencies, then it has, at the very least, to be called into question. It may well be that other forms of professional learning are more effective, or perhaps, as some would argue, that no CPD would have more impact, freeing up busy teachers to plan and mark better. If you have no way of knowing, then you may be wasting valuable time and resources on the wrong thing.

The problem is that whilst we may well agree that evaluating the impact of training on student outcomes is important, it is far from straightforward to measure this impact in a robust and efficient way. I know how hard it is because we have spent the past few years trying to figure out how to do evaluation better. I don’t think we have cracked it – far from it – but with the support of organisations like the fantastic Teacher Development Trust, we are getting closer to understanding what successful evaluation looks like and how to align our systems and practices so they are congruent with the content and aims of our professional learning.

There are a number of theoretical models for evaluating professional development, all of which have benefits and flaws. Kirkpatrick’s (1959, 1977, 1978) model from the world of business offers four types of evaluation. Despite its criticisms, such as the failure to consider the wider cultural factors of the organisation and assumptions about the causality between the levels, it provides a useful framework for thinking about what should go into effective evaluation. Likewise, although it runs counter to what we know about effective CPD, namely having a clear sense of intended outcomes, Scriven’s (1972) notion of goal-free evaluation also has its place, allowing within the evaluation process a place for identifying a range of impact outcomes, whether originally intended or not.

My favourite model for evaluating CPD, however, is Guskey’s (2000) hierarchy of five levels of impact. In this model the five levels are arranged hierarchically with each one increasing in complexity. The final two levels – including the last one which looks at the impact of professional learning on student outcomes – are the hardest to achieve, which no doubt explains why so many schools, including my own, have not done them terribly well. In many respects Guskey’s model bears similarities to Kirkpatrick’s framework, but crucially it adds a fifth level of evaluation, one that looks at the impact at an organisational level, which is useful for trying to make sure that the aims of a school’s CPD programmes are not undermined elsewhere by its culture or systems.

In the rest of this post, I will briefly outline each of the five levels in Guskey’s model and then explain what practices we are currently undertaking within each to improve the evaluation of our professional development. This is very much still a work in progress, so any feedback received would help us make further refinements moving forward.

  1. Reaction quality Evaluates how staff feel about the quality of their professional learning

In many respects, this area of evaluation is quite soft: basing evaluation on whether participants liked or disliked specific activities rather than objectively evaluating its impact on where it counts has been rightfully challenged as being weak. I do, think, however, that it is still important to include some element of staff qualitative feedback within the overall evaluation process, particularly if suggestions can be acted upon easily to increase buy-in.

To this end, we send out reaction quality surveys after every short form CPD session. It has only two sections. The first asks participants to evaluate the extent to which session objectives have been met, whilst the second invites more ‘goal free’ reaction feedback by asking about what was learned and what participants would like to see included or amended in future sessions.

Screenshot 2016-04-09 08.21.02

  1. Learning evaluationmeasures knowledge, skills and attitudes acquired through training

This aspect of evaluation is linked in with our appraisal process. I have already written about the changes to our appraisal this year, which have gone down well so far with enhancements to follow after feedback. Essentially, all teachers, classroom support staff and non-teaching staff identify two main goals: one that is a subject (or department/role) target orientated towards developing a specific aspect of pedagogy, practice or knowledge, whilst the second is a learning question, allowing for the enquiries into the more nebulous and complex aspects of improvement that lie at the heart of our daily practice.

The subject goal is supported by departments or teams during their fortnightly subject CPD time. For instance, a couple of science teachers seeking to improve their modelling might work together using IRIS lesson observation equipment, or a group of religious studies teachers might run seminars during department pedagogy time on the knowledge required to teach their new specifications. The enquiry question is supported by the wider CPD programme, the bulk of which takes places in learning communities that are selected during the appraisal process and aim to provide the necessary input and ongoing support.

The evaluation itself comes in two parts. The first is a professional audit, which we instigated for the first time last year and will be revisited in the summer term to see the extent to which knowledge has changed. The second part is built into the appraisal process, where through a combination of a learning journal, voluntary targeted observations and professional dialogue colleagues can demonstrate the new knowledge and insights they have acquired in their department training or through participation in their learning community.

The model is based upon a number of sources, including the helpful lesson study enquiry cycle put together by the Teacher Development Trust. Both interim appraisal and annual appraisals provide opportunities for meaningful discussions about individual development, as well as for the evaluation of individual and aggregated professional learning. This is not so much about holding individuals to account, but rather as a means of fostering an ethos of continual improvement and gaining insight of what training adds value and what doesn’t.

  1. Organisational evaluation – assesses the support and ethos of the organisation

This third level of evaluation in Guskey’s model represents the missing part of Kirkpatrick’s framework – evaluation of school ethos and support for CPD. As Guskey observes, it would be ridiculous for an individual teacher or group of teachers to receive high quality training that they understand in theory, agree with in principle but cannot put into practice because of ‘organizational practices that are incompatible with implementation efforts’.

The problem, however, with assessing the support and ethos across a whole school, and evaluating whether it is aligned with the objectives and content of the professional learning programme, is that it requires an objective, external voice – the ‘critical friend’ cited in recent reports into effective teaching and professional development. Fortunately, we are members of the Teacher Development Trust and one of the benefits of membership to their network is the regular external audit of CPD. Unlike other brands of external judgement, this one is supportive and helpful – both in the summative, but moreover in the formative sense. This post from TeacherToolkit provides a useful insight into one school’s experience of the TDT audit.

The audit is split into 7 categories with three levels of award for elements within these categories – Gold, Silver and Bronze. In assessing the overall quality of professional learning, it canvasses the views of all members of teaching and non-teaching staff. This is done via a pre-visit survey and then through extended interviews with a cross-section of staff during the day of the evaluation, which is peer reviewed with another member of the network. What I particularly like about the TDT audit is the way it provides rigorous external feedback into what is working and what requires improvement. There is no spurious judgement, but rather crucial feedback about what staff think about their own school’s CPD and a cool appraisal of whether of not its culture and practices enable new learning to be enacted.

  1. Behaviour evaluation – focuses on changes in behaviours as a result of training received

Professional development cannot really considered to have been successful if the day-to-day behaviours of teachers have not changed. As we all know, this usually takes a great deal of time. Even small changes in practice, such as trying to avoid talking whilst students are working can take a great deal of practice and feedback. Focused observations are a useful support in this process and can be requested by individuals who want to gain feedback on how their behaviours have changed and what they may wish to consider to change in the future. These observations are agreed at the outset and are purely developmental.

Perhaps the most reliable and useful source of ongoing evaluation into a teacher’s behaviorial change in the classroom is from the students’ themselves. Next year, we intend to introduce student evaluations, which again are not designed to catch staff out but rather to gain useful feedback for teachers with regards to the one or two identified areas of change that they have been deliberately working on, for either their subject goal or their learning question. It was too soon to introduce this year, particularly as we wanted to be careful about how we make sure that student evaluations are embraced not feared.

  1. Results evaluation assesses the impact of professional development on outcomes

At the outset of the appraisal in early October, teachers identify specific classes, groups of students and aspects of their classroom teaching or their students’ learning that they want to change as a consequence of their professional learning. This identification of outcomes is a structured and supported process, which not only looks back at previous examined and non-examined results, but also looks forward to future curriculum and timetable challenges. We no longer set arbitrary performance targets, but do seek to establish clearly-defined outcomes in relation to student learning. Again, the TDT resources have proven a very useful guide.

The intention for this year is to look closely at the impact of bespoke department and school-wide professional development on specified student outcomes. There may be some mileage in considering this in the aggregate too, but we are very much aware that much of the nuance is lost in such a process. It may be possible in the future to more closely align the goals of individual classroom contexts to those at department or whole school level, but this is very much something for the future. This is by no means a flawless approach, but it does get much closer to evaluating the thread between teacher growth and student achievement. David Weston, Chief Executive of the Teacher Development Trust, provides a different more immediate way of building evaluation into professional development with this wonderful worked example of a group of science teachers working on a common problem.

As I have already stressed, ours is still very much a work in progress. I do think, however, that we are much further along in understanding the importance of evaluation in relation to professional development, and what this might look like in practice.

Thanks for reading.


Bates (2004) ‘A critical analysis of evaluation practice: the Kirkpatrick model and the principle of beneficence’

Creemers B., L. Kyriakides and P. Antoniou (2013) Teacher Professional Development for Improving Quality of Teaching

Guskey, T (2000) Evaluating Professional Development

Scriven (1991) ‘Prose and Cons about Goal-Free Evaluation

* image adapted from: http://www.growthengineering.co.uk/why-public-recognition-motivates-us/


Five strategies for encouraging more effective independent study


At my school we have identified five core strategies to use in supporting our students with their independent study. Initially, the focus has been on embedding these approaches into year 11 and year 12, though in time we very much want all our students to understand the best ways to learn, both in the classroom and at home.

To this end, over the past few months we have undertaken a number of initiatives, all with the aim of getting students and teaching staff to be conversant in the importance of quizzing, spacing, elaboration, chunking and metacognition. We want to establish a shared language around effective learning strategies and believe that by having a thorough grasp of a few core concepts, our teachers are more likely to apply these principles to their teaching and our students are more likely to use them to improve their studying.

Now, we are certainly not the first school to think and act in this way. In honing our five principles of effective study, we have looked at much of the good work being done elsewhere, including this by Shaun Allison at his school. I hope that this blog, and the accompanying PDF resource at the end, will continue this good work and help other schools to get better at helping their students to succeed.

A different approach

In the past, we have talked quite a bit about helping students prepare for exams. Like other schools, we have dutifully supplied students with a range of resources to help them revise at home. We’ve given them highlighters (big mistake!), notecards, motivational pens, post-it notes and all manner of things to help get them organised. This was all done with the best of intentions, but, aside from the odd tokenary assembly, we never really considered the how of revising effectively. We now recognise that it is far better to have a coherent, shared approach to the language of effective independent study – a common way of thinking and talking about the learning that takes place outside the classroom.


Most, if not all, the people reading this will be familiar with importance of regular quizzing, as well as its attendant benefit in relation to long-term learning. It can, however, be hard to share this level of understanding across a wider body of staff, not to mention with the students. The difficulties of spreading messages at scale can lead to a loss of nuance and hence misapplication, such as the false belief that simply setting past papers constitutes quizzing. It doesn’t. This helpful post from the Learning Scientists’ blog addresses some of the issues in designing effective quizzes, and provides guidance about what is more likely to work with students than not.

To try and avoid misunderstanding, we have been  explicit about the distinction between low stakes quizzing and high-stakes testing, and taken the trouble to teach our year 11 students how to learn, in a similar way to what we have done in staff CPD. We designed a weekly tutor programme, where each week we unpicked the research behind specific learning principles and followed up with practical tasks designed to deepen understanding. We have also drawn colleagues together at INSET to share an understanding of effective independent study and provide time to design resources and approaches around the agreed principles. In terms of quizzing, for instance, we used examples of 4-5 different ways to quiz, including cued and non-cued recall tasks, as well as the use of graphics. This was followed up with opportunities for students to take these quizzes in tutor time, or to design their own to use with friends.

Spacing and interleaving


As with quizzing, sometimes there can be considerable misconception about what spaced or interleaved study actually looks like. I remember presenting a session on interleaving and after I finished my talk, someone came up to me, thanked me for my presentation and then suggested that he was ‘going to try some of that into leaving tomorrow’. I didn’t know whether to laugh at his misinterpretation or cry at my poor communication. Either way, confusion abounds.

Like quizzing, a clear visual example can be helpful to illustrate an idea like spacing, particularly with students who find it difficult to construct a mental model of an abstract concept. The mocked up A level weekly study timetable below has been useful in showing students and teachers what it might mean to spread out small blocks of focused and iterative study on targeted concepts and modules. We know that modelling works to support teaching, yet we do not tend to do enough of it when it comes to supporting students to become more autonomous learners. We have learned to change.


For practical reasons, we collapsed elaboration and self-explanation into the same principle. Whilst there is a difference, they do essentially boil down to a similar thing: asking questions that encourage links to be made to other knowledge and understanding in interesting and unpredictable ways. Examples of four different types of elaboration – Clarification (What does this mean?); analysis (why does this matter?); speculation (What would happen if?) and contextualisation (How does this relate to?) – have helped teachers to model the types of questions students should be asking themselves, consolidating their understanding by forging links to existing, seemingly unrelated, knowledge.

A great and simple way of maximising the benefits of elaboration is through combining it with the more familiar way of quizzing using flash cards. Inspired by another great post from the Learning Scientists blog, we have been encouraging our students to generate an additional set of flash cards to go along with their chunked subject-specific ones (see below). This additional set contain a range of elaborative cues, so that not only can students quiz themselves and each other on the content of the original card, but also be encouraged to make connections they had not necessarily considered and which may or may not arise in the actual exam. This requires explaining, as many students have become so indoctrinated by the idea that if it’s not on the test, it’s not worth learning. This obviously misses the point on two fronts, but is sadly the result of a narrow approach to exam preparation.


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All teachers and students usually know something about the limitations of working memory, even it only intuitively. We have used CPD time to improve our collective understanding of issues around cognitive load, and whilst there will be some staff that won’t necessarily remember the specific terms to describe what is going on when students learn, they understand the basic premise that you cannot think of too many things at any one time – the familiar 7 +/- 2 identified by George Miller, and more recently revised downwards to around 4.

If you get the idea of limited working memory capacity, then you are more likely to take steps to reduce cognitive load. Chunking is one of the most obvious strategies to help reduce pressure on working memory. The problem is that whilst there are many examples of what chunking is, there is little guidance about how to apply it practically. It is all very well to demonstrate how letters are chunked to form words, or that acronyms such as FBI, BBC and WWF allow more information to be stored at any one time, but that does not really help a class teacher chunk their lesson content, or a student to form chunks to help them revise.


One, admittedly simplistic, way in which we have tried to promote the benefits of chunked learning is through the use of modelled flash cards. We have shared exemplar GCSE and A level versions to illustrate how it is possible to deconstruct a subject from topic level through to specific items or chunks of to-be learned information. It is all fairly obvious stuff, but from my experience it is often in the realms of the seemingly self-evident that the most unpredictable of mistaken assumptions are made. I remember when I was revising for my A levels, I created hundreds of cards for each subject. The problem was I just rewrote condensed versions of chapters from textbooks without properly understanding what I was copying out. I suspect some students still do this today.

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Metacognition is wide field with a great deal of nuance, so we focused on just one or two practical applications of ‘thinking about thinking’ to improve our students’ ability to organise their learning outside of school and to help them approach their exams in a confident, well regulated manner. Each department used INSET time to provide a step-by-step guide to examination components. These guides provide the starting point for students to personalise their approaches to exams, taking on board how they might be thinking and feeling at different points, how long they should be spending on different questions or sections and what strategies they can best employ to help them overcome moments of confusion, anxiety or forgetfulness.

More broadly, we have tried to build up an understanding of the main metacognitive strategies that will help students to study more independently, whether they are preparing for exams or not. Effective metacognition controls highly important aspects of our minds including motivation, self-regulation and will power, and through a simple five step process we have tried to help students to see how they can better reflect on the ‘hows’ and ‘whys’ of what they are doing, and to devise appropriate coping and organisational strategies to enhance their performance under pressure.


So, there you have it – our approach to better supporting the independent learning of our students. It is far from perfect, but it is a lot better than what we have done before and we can continue to make it better in the future.

Here is a copy of a two-sided summary of our five principles that we have used with our teachers and students this year. I hope it is helpful.

Thanks for reading!




The trauma of learning – a personal journey through liminality


An  awful lot of fiction is immensely autobiographical, and a lot of nonfiction is highly imagined.  We dream ourselves awake every minute of the day.  “Fiction”/”nonfiction” is an utterly useless distinction. David Shields Reality Hunger

As an English teacher with a degree and masters in literature, I have a terrible confession to make. I don’t actually read that much.

Perhaps I should qualify that statement a little. I don’t read that much fiction, in particular that most amorphous of things, literary fiction. I do still read other genres, whenever I get the chance that is, which with two small children and working long hours isn’t always easy. During term time I read about education and, of course, books related to what I am teaching. In the holidays I generally go for a mixture of biography, history and all manner of things in between.

Not much fiction, though.

I’ve been aware of this state of affairs for a while, noticing with an increasing sense of sadness that I am reading less and less of what I once loved so very, very much and what I also insist on telling my students is incredibly important and empowering. Does the fact that I don’t read much literary fiction make me a bit of a hypocrite, a sham of an English teacher who undermines his profession through his own private reading habits? I don’t know. Maybe.

I wonder about this disconnect between my words and my deeds each Friday, when I share a gate duty with a history colleague, and the conversation turns to what books we are reading. He finds it perverse that whilst he reads literary texts vociferously, I tend to go for things like memoir, books on psychology and even history! Our short conversations leave me unsettled and make me reflect on why it is I read so little literary fiction.

A possible answer came to me recently. Whilst putting together a CPD session on threshold concepts, it occurred to me that what I might be experiencing is the deep sense of loss that Land et al suggest accompanies a shift in ontology – the troubling aspect of troublesome knowledge. Perhaps I have a passed through a threshold in the way that I think and feel about the novel and its attendant truth claims, which means I can no longer read and appreciate books in the same way.

I think I can trace this shift in attitude to the third year of my undergraduate studies and then to the later masters in twentieth century literature I pursed in the early years of teaching. Whilst my degree introduced me to ideas about the death of the author and the instability of language, my masters took things much further, destabilising all notions of truth, objectivity and intentionality and unmooring me from previous ideas about the centrality of narrative craft.

It wasn’t until some years later, though, when I came across the American writer David Shields, that I found someone who was able articulate reasons for my gradual disquietude towards literature. It would be fair to say that Shield’s short 2011 book Reality Hunger – a kind of manifesto for a new kind of genre-blurring 21st-century prose – left a significant impression on me, one that, over time, has contributed to a significant change in my reading.

Reality Hunger stitches together aphorisms, asides and quotations, from high and low culture, alongside the writer’s own reflections. It is almost impossible to locate any kind of authentic voice, and it would have been completely so had Shields got his way and had all attributions expunged. Despite its patchwork structure, one message remains consistent – that the boundaries used to distinguish between genres don’t really exist. What we think of as non-fiction, contains as much fiction as what we consider literature, and what we think of as beautiful, or poetically true has as much chance of appearing in journalism as in poetry.

The line between fact and fiction is fuzzier than most people find it convenient to admit. There is the commonsensical assertion that while the novelist is engaged on a work of the creative imagination, the duty of the journalist is to tell what really happened, as it happened. That distinction is easy to voice but hard to sustain in logic. For imagination and memory are Siamese twins, and you cannot cut them so cleanly apart.                                                                                               Reality Hunger, David Shields

Reading Shields’ book, and his 2013 follow up, the ironically titled How Literature Saved My Life, made me profoundly question the authenticity of literary fiction, particularly recently-published works that I feel too often try to do what novels have done before but can no longer pull off. Many a book I start but find myself unable to buy-in to the worlds and characters it tries to create. Sadly, I no longer submit to the power of literature to cast a spell; it can be too easy to see the spell being cast and the artifice being exposed. I still read some older fiction, but only as a form of nostalgia for authenticity and the stability of character and plot – a time when things were different, or had the appearance of being so.

I could write more about all this, and about how my love and belief in literature has been slowly undermined through a combination of high theory and the thoughts of an obscure American, who has grown disillusioned by contemporary meaning making, but what I am really interested in is the experience of loss itself. What fascinates me is how learning more, in this case about books and the way they work and can be read, has meant a letting go of many of the things that I knew and once loved – things that attracted me to a degree in the first place. I am left wondering whether the trauma involved with learning certain things, is necessarily always worth the pain that might go with it.

James Atherton, in his excellent website about teaching and learning, provides a useful frame of reference for explaining the process of loss that accompanies the learning of something new. Atherton suggests loss is one of the unseen or hidden explanations for why some students do not learn challenging new material. Using a comparison with evolutionary survival, he explains how the struggle to learn new things – perhaps something as troublesome and undermining as that which I have been experiencing with my own developing thoughts about the novel – might lead the students we teach to reject new ways of seeing the world in favour of preserving the security of their existing ontology.

In Atherton’s model, species survive and grow, but only (counter-intuitively) by becoming less fit, at least in the first instance. His account works on the premise that the effort required to move on – whether physically or intellectually – requires a significant expenditure of initial effort, which in evolutionary terms equates to a loss of fitness. Rather than thinking of dominant species occupying higher plains of existence, he sees them residing in lower pools or troughs. In this model, it is thus an effort, or a loss of fitness, that is required to provide the impetus to move from one pool to another. Survival and growth is about adapting and making sacrifices – but only through letting go of current ways of thinking and knowing in order to find better ways of thinking and knowing.


Now, I am not for one moment suggesting that the way I have come to think about literature– and what it can and can’t do – is necessarily superior, or even more truthful per se. It might be for me, but it probably isn’t for you. This post is intended as a personal account of how I have come to understand truth, and the best ways of capturing it in written form. One of the central tenants of threshold concepts, in particular the state of liminality, is that given the myriad intersections of knowledge possible, every journey or ontological change will be different. In time there may well be a dominant cultural understanding about the role of the novel; for now, I think we are far from a settled belief in its status in relation to truth claims.

As hard as it has been to let go of my previous feelings towards literary fiction, I cannot really see how things could be any other way. Whilst I enjoyed once thinking the novel one of the best ways to understand our nature, I can now see that other genres – particularly those that collapse the distinction between high and low culture, between fiction and non-fiction and between poetry and prose – may well have as much, if not more to offer. It is no coincidence the majority of books I read occupy this space in between: the part biography, popular science of Oliver Sacks; Patti Smith’s mix of poetry and life in M Train; the combination of grammar and vignette that is Mary Norris’s Confessions of a Comma Queen. Even education books, like John Tomsett’s wonderful Hope Over Fear, defies its notional educational category, framing, as it does, insights into effective leadership with touching true-life accounts.

Learning can certainly be a long and painful experience, but one that is quite clearly necessary for our individual and collective growth.

Ignorance may well be bliss, but who’d want to be a sheep?