I’ve been fortunate to work in the three great cities of the East Midlands – Leicester, Nottingham and Derby. My first 29 years of life were spent in Leicester. As a result of hundreds of trips to family and friends, I was able to develop an extensive knowledge of the area. Despite no longer living there, I often visit, and when traffic is bad I benefit from knowing most of the rat runs to ensure a timely arrival at my destination. Having this knowledge means that I can be creative with the journey I take. I can make sound judgements about where the traffic is likely to be bad and where I can save time by going alternative routes.


After much of my life in Leicester, I spent 3 years working in Nottingham in a role which required a lot of travel around the city. During this time, I developed a reasonably good knowledge of the city, getting to grips with most areas. Today I visited an area of Nottingham that I hadn’t previously, so as I neared my destination I needed to switch the sat nav on to guide me in. As I left the area to go to another part of the city, I started to recognise where I was and so the sat nav could be put away. Some knowledge of the area meant that I didn’t need to rely on the sat nav for too long.


I’ve been working in Derby for the last few months and prior to that, had only visited on a few occasions. Much like my previous role, my current position  involves a lot of travel. Today I made it out of Derby to Nottingham and back to Derby without my sat nav – the first time I have managed such a feat! Usually I am reliant on my sat nav to direct me everywhere in Derby.


On my travels, I started to think about learning, specifically knowledge of new areas. You see, when I drive around a new city, I use my sat nav as it tells me exactly where to go and on most occasions, I get to my destination in the most time efficient manner. Were I to try getting to a destination without the sat nav, I’d lose much of my day trying to figure out where I needed to go. Until I have developed a sufficient knowledge base which allows me to recognise that I’m on the correct route, the sat nav is my guide. Once I have a wealth of knowledge, the sat nav becomes redundant.


This is analogous to learning. Teacher = sat nav. If we want to learn anything, it is far more efficient and effective to be told by the teacher in the first instance. It is no good trying to figure out things for ourselves – it is not an efficient or effective way of proceeding. When we have more knowledge, we can begin to remove the teacher, until we become fluent. When we are fluent, we are able to do the ‘higher order’ stuff independent of the teacher.


I have blogged previously about the need to adopt different instructional methods for different learners (no this is nothing to do with learning styles!). The different methods of instruction are more/less effective based upon the prior knowledge of the learners.  For example, there is a body of research (Kirschner et al) which shows that direct instruction is more efficient and effective with novice learners. Essentially, they need to be told what to do, due to having insufficient knowledge to allow them to think for themselves (much like me trying to find my way around a new city – Derby). When sufficient knowledge is accrued, then the guidance can become less. Much like me driving around Nottingham. When learners acquire expertise in a subject, they are actually impeded by direct instruction according to Sweller et al (expertise reversal effect blog). This I suspect, is much like a sat nav telling me where I should go in Leicester. Sure it will send me the quickest route, but it won’t know where there is likely to be more traffic, like me. It will probably add more time to my journey.


In summary, the more we know, the less support we need; the less we know, the more support we need. How do you know what they know… initial assessment of course!


Some points I am aware of:

  • The post is a bit of tongue in cheek. We all know that learning isn’t quite as simple as I have made it out to be.
  • I know there is a danger of becoming over reliant on the teacher (sat nav). 
  • Bad teacher instruction is bad – much like a bad sat nav (I’ve hit a few dead ends in my time). 

Let’s Flip the Focus – Knowledge v Skills

I’ve been contemplating this post for a number of months now. The paradox of teaching generic skills in Further Education (FE) to enhance prospects. These are developing thoughts only and I welcome feedback.


The majority of learners recruited in FE are those that didn’t necessarily achieve the highest grades at school. This lack of achievement may be as a result of many factors, but focusing purely on cognition, is likely to be as a result of not remembering or knowing enough (about the curriculum). Interestingly, rather than focusing on providing these individuals with knowledge, FE has seen a huge emphasis on delivering sessions that are learner centred, and that focus on the development of generic employability skills such as critical thinking, problem solving, independent thinking and creativity (perhaps due to external pressure?). These learner centred practices may involve experiential learning activities (role play), project based learning (group work), inquiry based learning or something of a similar ilk. Much of these practices are informed by the work of Vygotsky, Rogers and Dewey to name a few.


I’m not going to lie, I actually like and make use of some of these approaches from time to time, but recognise that they do focus on generic skill development, rather than explicitly aiming to increase knowledge. Although recognised as essential by Sweller, he asserts that generic skills can’t actually be taught.

‘Generic skills are far more basic and far more important than domain-specific knowledge, but they do not need to be taught because we have evolved over countless generations to acquire them effortlessly and unconsciously simply by membership of a society.’

This quote identifies the fact that the aforementioned generic skills are formed and developed naturally, and cites Geary’s (2012) definition of these skills as being ‘biologically primary knowledge’. Further to primary knowledge, biologically secondary knowledge is that which can only be acquired through instruction according to Sweller:

‘Biologically secondary knowledge is knowledge we have not specifically evolved to acquire but that we need for cultural reasons. We will not acquire such knowledge automatically and indeed, we invented schools and other educational institutions precisely in order to teach biologically secondary knowledge because otherwise it tends not to be learned.’

This is the knowledge contained within curriculum. The core ‘domain specific’ information needed by learners (or perceived to be needed by those writing the curriculum). The knowledge that without acquiring, may lead to learners not being able to problem solve or think critically about.


A wealth of research has explored the differences between experts and novices and found that their cognition is different. Experts are able to draw upon a wealth of knowledge from their long term memory to enable better problem solving and critical thinking skills (Willingham, 2009).  I often use the example of myself when discussing this with my trainee teachers. If you were to ask me to solve a problem with an individual’s exercise programme or diet, I could make use of my prior knowledge to provide a suitable solution. Ask me to solve a problem with a car engine and you’ve lost me. I can only just remember how to open the car bonnet!


By teaching learners to be experts through learner centred, guided discovery, higher order activities, or whatever else you want to call it, we are not improving their knowledge as well as we might through explicit instruction or methods that have shown to improve long term memory. I always use the question ‘how do learners know what they need to know?’ when talking about learner choice and inquiry based learning and the research summarised by Hattie appears to support this notion (though only looking at achievement outcomes (o.04 and 0.31 respectively)).


In summary, teaching lessons through learner led methods in FE may not be as productive as we think. In fact, maybe we should flip the focus our attention on ensuring that learners really have learnt the knowledge needed and are given ample opportunity to reinforce this. I have written about how you might do this here. Then and only then might we find that their ‘generic skills’ develop.



Laying slabs

I recently spent a few days laying 60 slabs in the back garden. I’m a complete novice to doing such tasks and in hindsight, perhaps should have paid to have the work done. I didn’t because, 1. I’m tight and didn’t want to spend the £2,500 I was quoted and 2. because I think I can do anything if I put my mind to it (Carol Dweck eat your heart out). Upon reflection of the work, I realised that some of what I learnt from my mistakes could be applied to the classroom. This is inspired by all the great posts by @BodilUK.


1: Looks can be deceiving

  • The ground I planned to lay the slabs on had a lot of grass – 60 slabs worth in fact. My plan was to quickly remove this to start preparing the ground for the slabs. I assumed the grass would come up easy. It looks lovely and soft, so I went to work with my edger and spade. This turned out to be the most challenging task and if you have ever tried it, you will sympathise with me. Blood, sweat, tears and a whole lot of time went into it.
  • Applying to education: The thing I learnt very quickly was that looks can be deceiving. In lessons, we spend a lot of time observing our learners, whether it be their faces, or the work they are producing. What we see may not necessarily be representative of what is going on between their ears.

2. Patience is a virtue

  • Once I start a job, I’m pretty rubbish at taking it steady. When laying the slabs I wanted to get as much done as possible each day. I found myself cutting corners occasionally and thus making mistakes. For example, rather than removing some of the excess concrete to lay a slab flat, I gave it a few too many whacks with the mallet instead. This resulted in several cracked slabs, which obviously needed replacing.
  • Applying to education: It is good to be efficient; there’s a lot to get through, but sometimes things need time. Know when to take it steady and give learners enough time to really think about the content.

3. Checking work

  • As a result of moving quickly, there were times when I would lay a new slab next to a perfectly flat one and as soon as I gave it a little mallet, the original slab moved out of place. I would then have to go back to re-level the slab. This was highly frustrating, but came as a result of me rushing.
  • Applying to education: Ensure that learners are able to consolidate their understanding of something before moving on. If they’re not ready, then continue to support them.

 4. Being organised

  • Now when laying the slabs, I didn’t really think strategically about the order that I would lay them – I suppose it was very adhoc. The problem was that when it came to me filling the 5×5 square with the last slab being going on the edge in the middle, I had a big gap either side. I suppose a gap was better than not being able to fit the slab in, but it required a bit of extra mortar to fill the space.
  • Applying to education: Suffice to say that when you teach, planning is essential. If you plan the building blocks of learning wrong, learners will need a whole lot more support than a bit of extra mortar.

5. Care

  • As I didn’t have any, I didn’t wear gloves when completing the work. I handled the cement like it was play dough. Three days of this left me with sores on the tips of my fingers that were so painful that I couldn’t do anything with my hands by day 3. I mean anything! I was useless to my wife for a good few days after.
  • Applying to education: Look after yourself. You are no good to anyone if not.

Believe it or not, the job isn’t such a bad one. Where I made my mistakes, I have now strategically placed a trampoline to cover them.IMG_0793