Think about thinking hard

I recently stumbled across this statement in Coe’s excellent ‘Improving Education‘ publication and it really hit home:

Some research evidence, along with more anecdotal experience, suggests that students may not necessarily have real learning at the top of their agenda. For example, Nuthall (2005) reports a study in which most students “were thinking about how to get finished quickly or how to get the answer with the least possible effort”. If given the choice between copying out a set of correct answers, with no effort, but no understanding of how to get them, and having to think hard to derive their own answers, check them, correct them and try to develop their own understanding of the underlying logic behind them, how many students would freely choose the latter? And yet, by choosing the former, they are effectively saying, ‘I am not interested in learning.’

Coe goes on to inform us that ‘learning happens when people have to think hard‘. But how do we ensure that learners are both thinking hard, and putting effort into their learning? Easier said than done eh?

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Here’s some ideas for you to think about using with learners at the start of the academic year:

  1. Teach students about the importance of hard work and effort: Now this is no easy feat. Marzano informs us that this can have a high effect of achievement and suggests sharing examples of personal experiences or those that learners can relate to. He also suggests that learners self-assess their effort in lessons when self-assessing achievement against success criteria – not something I have tried myself, but certainly one to consider.
  2. Establish routines early: For those working in an FE college, most learners are joining your class with no idea as to what to expect. they will be in new surroundings, with new people and this is a great opportunity to establish high expectations in the classroom – Start as you mean to go on! If you have learning activities that require little effort, or if learners are allowed to put little effort in, then guess what? Yes, that will be the routine for the year.
  3. Find out what learners know and use the information: Initial assessment is crucial, but I’m not talking the whole sticking the learners on a computer to complete a maths and English IA to determine… well, not-a-lot. What I’m talking about is finding out what the learners know about your subject. Give them an advanced organiser to help them identify current knowledge and how this fits with information they’re going to learn. Use what they know to help them make sense of new information, to challenge misconceptions and to give a clear direction to the learning that they’re about to embark on.
  4. Organise information: Building on from the above, the more organised the information that learners are dealing with, the better. Provide a range of concrete examples to explain abstract concepts and use both verbal and visual information simultaneously (dual coding) to reduce cognitive load. Cognitive science research also indicates the benefits of revisiting information on several occasions over the term/period of learning (distributed practice) to enhance retention. There are many other strategies that have shown time and time again to be effective – summarised clearly for teachers by the learning scientists (every teacher needs this in their life).
  5. Test learners regularly: As with the above, our memory trace is improved when we have to work hard to retrieve information from long term memory, thus improving retention. Therefore, we should aim to test learners frequently through mini quizzes and self testing. This not only supports retrieval practice, but it also allows both teacher and learners to identify strengths and any misconceptions that learner have, thus allowing for appropriate intervention.

All of the above are simple ‘off the shelf’ strategies that may help to increase the effort and ensure that learners are working and thinking hard in your classrooms. They are not silver bullets and may work better in some situations than others, but all are worth considering – particularly as the new term is about to begin.



Why do we ignore the evidence in FE?

Evidence based practice has been somewhat of a revelation to me and my practice. I don’t take everything as gospel, but do look at the strategies that time and time again have shown to be effective. If I think they could work for me in my setting, then I will try to adopt them – why wouldn’t I?


The problem is, Further Education and Skills, moreover, external organisations (Ofsted), agencies and training companies promote practice that is not always informed by evidence. In fact, they promote quite the opposite. Let me give some examples:


Example 1: Individualised Instruction – On so many occasions have I heard comments like this: “there was not enough personalised learning in the session” or “learners were working at the same level and pace so the lesson did not meet their needs”. I’ve even uttered similar things myself (more to conform with expectations than actually believing it). I regularly hear of top-down expectations in sessions for learning to be differentiated to meet all learner needs through learning outcomes and learning activities, but in terms of opportunity cost, evidence shows that this is largely ineffective (not including special education):

‘Individualising instruction does not tend to be particularly beneficial for learners…the average impact on learning tends overall to be low, and is even negative in some studies, appearing to delay progress by one or two months.

This is not to say that differentiation isn’t important. I have blogged my views previously and agree with a lot of Amjad Ali’s post on differentiation. Both posts show the importance of teaching to the top and supporting all to get there. For this to occur, you need to respond to what is in front of you at that point in time. No amount of planning for individualised learning activities will do this in my opinion.


Example 2: Student Control Over Learning – ‘Learner autonomy’, another term bandied around freely without considering the evidence. Do learners really know what they need to know? I suggest not and the evidence supports this, with Hattie finding an effect-size of 0.04 – negligible. This links with the aforementioned really, giving a range of task choices is probably not going to add much value to the session, despite what you may be told.


Example 3: Raising Aspirations – If I hear aspirational target one more time!… I get it, I totally do. Those that are disadvantaged should be supported to overcome these dreadful statistics:

‘33.5% of pupils eligible for FSM achieved at least 5 A*- C GCSEs (or equivalent) grades including English and mathematics compared to 60.5% of all other pupils. This is a gap of 27.0 percentage points.

36.5% of disadvantaged pupils achieved at least 5 A*- C GCSEs (or equivalent) grades including English and mathematics compared to 64.0% of all other pupils, a gap of 27.4 percentage points’

However, trying to raise aspirations isn’t the answer. Though the evidence here is limited, it does show that there is no causal link between aspiration and attainment. I’ve said before that we’ve gone target setting mad. A key comment taken from the report which certainly applies to FE and Skills is:

‘The attitudes, beliefs and behaviours that surround aspirations in disadvantaged communities are diverse so generalisations should be avoided.’

I am not saying don’t encourage learners to aspire to be better, but be wary of any cross-school/college interventions or strategies, particularly when there is a new ‘buzzword’ attached.


To summarise, the aforementioned information is not fact, but evidence suggests that we need to be wary of these common and encouraged practices that actually have little impact according to evidence. My next post will focus on what we should pay more attention to – the strategies that have demonstrated a positive impact on learner achievement.


The cost of peddling bad practice

During a recent Inspection, a friend of mine received a feedback email with the key themes that were being identified in lessons by Inspectors. One of the areas for development was that there were not enough lessons with differentiated learning objectives (i.e. all, most some). This information was relayed to all staff members and of course the message was clear; differentiate learning objectives in all sessions going forward. All due to the comments of an ill-informed inspector.


Aside from the fact that it has been made clear that Inspectors should not prescribe a particular style of teaching, let’s just focus on the problems with differentiated objectives. In summary they can:

  • Lower the bar for students, which in turn widens the achievement gap between the higher and lower ability.
  • Label students unnecessarily.
  • Result in a lack of clarity with the learning intentions.

I’m ashamed to admit that I was once an advocate of the differentiated learning objective. I would spend ages writing my lesson objectives as red, amber and green, and share them with students on a neatly presented handout which they would tick as they went through the session. On the surface this looked great – clear differentiation, learner autonomy and self-assessment. But actually if you probed a little, you would find I was probably doing more harm than good. Those learners with little self esteem/confidence would always attempt the lowest standard. Regardless of the topic, regardless of any other factor. Granted, in some cases, they were challenging themselves, but I suggest that in most they were not.


If we briefly examine Hattie’s (2009) work, the following has been suggested::

– Student control over learning has a negligible effect size (.04)

– Individualising instruction for learners has a low effect size (.22), particularly when thinking opportunity cost.

On the contrary, by not labelling students, there is a generally high effect size of .61. This is also corroborated by the work of Carol Dweck (2012) on Growth Mindset, where individuals can develop their abilities through hard work.


I’m not completely against setting personal targets or objectives in the sessions where they lend themselves to doing so. For example, where learners are working towards the completion of different things, using different skills (generally practical tasks i.e hairdressing). In your standard theory session, there really is no need in my opinion (though I am open to hearing counter arguments). Aim for the highest ability and support the others well – as previously discussed in my post on stretch and challenge.


In summary, it is clear that a small ill-informed comment by someone in a position of power can actually have massive ramifications on a whole institution, if not wider. Prescribing and favouring one method over another is wrong – particularly with no evidence base for it.

Stretch and Challenge

It’s been a term that has been bandied around everywhere in education for the last few years; ‘stretch and challenge’ learners. All of a sudden, as if out of nowhere, some bright spark realised that there needed to be a name for that thing, the thing where learners aren’t working hard enough or aren’t progressing enough in lessons. 


When I started to write this post, I thought I had a good understanding of stretch and challenge, after all, I’ve attended several training sessions and seen all of the toolkits over the years; damn I even have my own toolkit of ideas! However, the more I think about it, the more I think that perhaps how stretch and challenge is commonly viewed might need to change slightly. Let me explain further…


I’d like to introduce to you the concept of ‘flow’ by Csikszenpmihalyi. Essentially, with an appropriate level of challenge for the appropriate ability level, it is suggested that learners are motivated and eager to learn. If new learning is too challenging for the ability level of the learner, then they are likely to become anxious and disengage. Likewise, if the new learning lacks challenge, learners become bored. 


In my experience,  teachers (myself included) typically plan to the middle ability learners and these are ones that tend to find their ‘flow’. However, this also results in some less-able learners becoming disengaged because everyone else ‘gets it’ but them. They need extra support and this is where the teacher is then required to spend the majority of their time in the lesson. In the meantime, the more able learners become bored quickly. After all, the work is easy and let’s be honest, no one wants to do extension work – it’s a punishment. These learners decide to take a little longer than they usually would on their work so that they don’t finish early, or they find something/someone else to distract themselves. It’s like a vicious cycle where only a few actually find their ‘flow’ in a lesson. 


For me, the key to stretch and challenge is to pitch the learning at the higher ability learners. This by default means that everyone in the class is challenged. Then through means of support, the lower ability learners are given the opportunity to find their ‘flow’ and make progress towards the learning intentions. So basically, what I’m suggesting, is that rather than the term ‘stretch and challenge’, we should be using the term ‘support’ instead. Here’s some ideas how:


  • Scaffolding – This essentially means that those learners that are struggling with the challenge of a lesson, have the option to acquire support to help them build on ideas. For example, the teacher may model a task using step by step instructions e.g. a science experiment. They could provide learners with a crib sheet which helps learners to structure a piece of writing coherently. Moreover, providing learners with worked examples allows them to develop their understanding of a process.
  • Probing questions – Not only is questioning a useful way of ascertaining learner understanding and eliciting discussion, one can use it as a means to support thinking. Most advocates of questioning suggest that it is a way to stretch and challenge learners. Yes, it can be, but why not use it to support learners thinking? For example: ‘What could happen if…?’ ‘Why is it not…?’ ‘How might this affect…?’ Knowing which learners are perhaps finding it challenging in a lesson, allows for targetted and probing questions to be asked, which may support their thinking.
  • Regular and purposeful formative assessment – It is no good checking learners understanding of something if you are not going to make purposeful alterations to the lesson if required. Just because a learner has been doing well in prior sessions, doesn’t mean they’ll be the same in this one. Regular assessment allows you to monitor the progress of ALL learners during the session. Providing learners with opportunities to peer and self-assess ensures that they are aware of success criteria and able to identify their own areas for development. Following this, support can be provided to individuals/groups.
  • Mixed ability paired work – Despite a recent post of mine suggesting that group work can work, I much prefer paired work. Through working in pairs, there can be a greater contribution from each learner and a greater responsibility for one another’s learning. Peer tutoring has an effect-size of 0.5 according to Hattie (2009), which is above average. This is particularly useful for supporting learners if mixing more able with less able learners. Not only do more able learners have an opportunity to consolidate their understanding, but the less able learners are more likely to receive better explanations.
  • Creating analogies/metaphors – In his book, ‘Why Students Don’t Like School’, Dan Willingham’s (2009) Fourth Principle is to assist learners in understanding new things in the context of things they already know. In giving learners an opportunity to create their own analogies/metaphors, or sharing a range with them, it supports the acquisition of knowledge and understanding concepts. 


So, that’s how we might stretch and challenge our learners, or should I say support our learners. Here’s how not to stretch and challenge:


  • Extra work – It’s fair to say that this is a common ‘no no’ for stretching and challenging learners, purely because it is hard to motivate learners to do more work week in week out. Maybe occasionally, this approach should be used, but my advice is to avoid where possible. 
  • Differentiated learning objectives – I used to be an advocate of the All, Most, Some business, that was until I realised that it pigeon holes learners. Let’s face it, learning isn’t linear, nor can personalised learning be something that can be planned for well. Depending on the mood of the learner, how much/little sleep they had, which teacher they had before you, whether they have eaten etc etc, will impact on their flow in the class. React to the learners you have in front of you at that moment in time. 
  • Engaging learners – This is entirely different to stretching and challenging learners. With the right level of challenge, learners may well be engaged, but thinking about engagement first is just outright wrong. Learners end up doing learning activities where they are not thinking about the content, but the activity they are undertaking. Memory is the residue of thought and all that!
  • Evaluative work – Mike Gershon, in his article for the TES discusses the importance of getting learners to evaluate as it demonstrates a sound understanding of the topic. By using evaluation command words such as: appraise, argue, assess, critique, defend, evaluate, judge, justify and value, learners need to think hard about the content and dare I say it begin to develop ‘softer skills’. However, this shouldn’t just be something just for the more able learners, these are things that all learners need to be challenged to do, therefore, it’s not something that I consider to be stretch and challenge.


In summary, all learners should be challenged by high expectations aimed to challenge the most able learners. The role of a teacher should then be to adequately support other learners to find their flow in lessons, thus supporting their learning.