Primary Science: a tale of two practicals

Mr Smith and Mrs Jones both teach a Year 3 class in the same school. Mr Smith is an ECT (first year) and Mrs Jones is now in her 5th year of teaching.

Rocks. I don’t care what you say, they’re boring and should be left to the Geography teachers.

This term the Science topic is rocks. They both have access to the school Science Scheme of Work, which ties in with the National Curriculum Programme of Study, and has been adapted to suit the resources they have available.

In their first lesson pupils are learning about the properties of different rocks and are testing them for “hardness”.

After the lesson I take the opportunity to chat to the pupils about what they’ve learned in Science today.

Mr Smith’s class

They were learning about rocks and were testing them to see which were hardest. They had to give them a hardness score on a scale of 1 to 10. They scraped some rocks with a coin, and if nothing came off it was a low score, and if some did it was a medium score. They had a nail to hit the rocks with, and if some came off with the nail it was a higher score.

The first rock had a low score (2), the 2nd and 3rd rocks were medium (5 and 6) and the last rock was a high score because it was the hardest (8).

Mrs Jones’ class

They were learning about rocks and were testing them to see which were hardest. They were given 4 different types of rock; sandstone, marble, slate and granite. Sandstone is a sedimentary rock because its made from lots of small bits of sand or sediment pushed together. Marble and slate are metamorphic rocks which is what happens when other rocks get squashed down and heated up in the earth. Granite is an igneous rock and its made from magma that cools down.

They tested the hardness of the rocks by scraping them or hitting them with coins or nails. Mrs Jones spoke to them about how they could decide how hard the rocks were. They decided not to use a score, as there was no fair way of giving them a number from how easy they are to scrape. They decided to put them in order of hardness instead. They found that the igneous rocks where the hardest, then the metamorphic, and the sedimentary was softest.

What’s going on?

It was clear that both classes enjoyed the lesson, particularly the practical work, and they’d all learnt something, but there’s no denying there’s a difference in outcomes between the classes. So what happened?

Teachers prioritise the need to provide fun, awe and wonder moments that ensure children enjoy science. They are actively seeking to use and find great wow activities from internet ideas, video platforms and social media etc. These activities often stand alone and lack a relevant or appropriate curriculum rationale, with many relevant concepts inaccessible because the scientific explanation would be too abstract or complex. A clear rationale and articulation of why this activity is in this sequence of learning is not evident to the children or articulated by the teacher.

Bianchi et al. The 10 key issues with children’s learning in primary science in England (2021)

Mr Smith, like so many science teachers before him (at all key stages) took a look at the scheme of work, recognised that the practical would be interesting and fun for the pupils, and went into it with full gusto. And the pupils enjoyed it. But he’d not stopped to think about the underpinning rationale for doing the practical at all.

Mrs Jones did the same in her first year (and her second year too, actually). But her end of topic assessments showed a real gap in pupil knowledge about the properties of rocks, so she shifted her focus.

Mrs Jones recognised that the purpose of the practical wasn’t really about finding out how hard different rocks are. She could just tell them that. For her the practical was about

  1. making the different types of rocks tangible and real (concrete) rather than abstract concepts.
  2. Opening up a discussion about the limits of their quantitative data (scoring hardness) and looking at alternatives (rank ordering).

And for Mrs Jones the main focus of the lesson was recognising the different categories of rocks and their properties. She spent a lot of time focussing on scientific vocabulary (and the pupils articulated this to me beautifully).

Two classes. Same practical. Both classes had fun. But in one class the practical was purposeful, the intent was understood, and the breadth and depth of learning was far greater.

P.S. I know Moh’s hardness scale is a thing. Its just particularly ineffective with children. Most don’t have fingernails long or strong enough for scraping, and big burly Harry can scape a lot more off with a coin than little Larry sat next to him…

Teacher bike commuting: making it work (well)

I’ve already outlined why I’m loving the daily bike commute here. But as I’m sure you can imagine, it doesn’t come without some challenges. Here are some hopefully helpful things I’ve learned so far…

Look at the positives

Distance and commute time is going to be an obvious obstacle for many. This can be mitigated somewhat by recognising that the commute can also be part of your daily exercise routine. My bike commute takes 10-15 mins more each way than if I travelled by car. So that’s 20 to 30 mins a day wasted, right? Not if you remember that you’re getting a decent cardiovascular workout at the same time.

If the distance/time is a bit too far for you, maybe look at investing in an e-bike. They cost a bit more but you’ll soon make the money back on petrol savings.

Mindset shift: it’s not a race

I’m a cycling novice, and have only really ever done it for exercise purposes. Within a few days I recognised that I needed to shift my mindset from “ride as hard as you can” (step away from the Strava segments) to “get there alive and without being sweaty”. There’s a time and place for pushing yourself to see what you can do and the commute is not it.

No sweat

Exactly how I look, chilling on my way to work.

You’ve really got two options for avoiding being sweaty in school.

  1. Ride more gently on the way in so you don’t get too hot. Change your clothes when you get to work.
  2. Ride and get sweaty, shower and change in school.

Showering in school is currently not an option for me so I’ve gone with 1. I take it easy on the way to work (only actually adds a few minutes to my journey), change out of my cycling gear and get suited and booted. My route isn’t too hilly (and the main hill is at the start so a good warm up) so I’ve not had any issues yet.

The fastest route isn’t necessarily the best route

Don’t just automatically take the shortest or quickest route. It’s worth going a bit further if an alternative route is safer or more enjoyable. My route takes about 5 mins more than the quickest route, but the roads are quieter and around half of it is a lovely trail ride along a bridleway. It even goes under the M53 at one point so I get to chuckle at people stuck in traffic 😉

Ride visibly and confidently (but like there’s a £1M bounty on your head).

I’ve not had much experience of riding on the roads, so this has been a baptism of fire. Ride confidently; stuttering indecision at junctions, roundabouts etc is not good. If you’re good to go, go. But at the same time, ride defensively. Assume everyone is trying to kill you. Basically channel your inner John Wick (but with maybe a little less ultraviolence).

John should have worn a bike helmet

Forget about trying to look stylish: wear bright neon colours and have bright lights (including in flashing lights in the day time) so that you’re likely to be seen by drivers. I’d rather look like a dayglo Christmas tree than be dead.

I’ve got a Garmin Varia rear light/radar that’s an absolute godsend. It links with my Garmin 810 bike computer and bleeps at me aggressively whenever there is traffic behind me (works from quite a distance). Obviously you still need to check over your shoulder when pulling out etc but the extra awareness of traffic behind me is really useful.

Carrying essential teacher kit

First off: clothes. Two options here really

  1. Drive/get a lift in once a week and take 4 days of clothing with you. This takes a little bit of planning ahead but makes the commute much easier. I take a few suits, 4 shirts etc and leave on hangars somewhere safe in school. I bring the dirty clothes home with me each day, and the following Monday swap the suits and repeat.
  2. Take the clothes with you. I have a TwoWheelGear Garment Carrier Pannier bag. It’s not cheap but it’s an absolutely wonderful piece of kit. I can get suit, shirt, all my rain gear, lunch, laptop, everything I need into it. Adds a fair bit of weight to my bike though.

Whether you’re taking clothes with you or not, I’d recommend getting a rear bike rack and using pannier bags. Rucksacks are ok but can lead to back ache and get you all sweaty. The rear rack also lowers the centre of gravity. A decent trunk bag like this has loads of space for what you need to take with you (and clip on and off easily).

Beat the bad weather by dressing appropriately

The old adage of “there’s no bad weather, only bad clothing” applies pretty well to cycling. I have a waterproof jacket, trousers, gloves and (most importantly) shoe covers all tucked in my bag. Don’t neglect the shoe covers, riding home in soggy shoes is not pleasant.

A word of caution; clothing that keeps rain out, also tends to keep sweat in, so you’ll need to slow down a bit (wise in bad weather anyway).


Don’t forget to put the cable lock though the wheels…

Where will you store your bike when you’re at work? Some schools are lucky enough to have secure staff bike sheds (locked doors etc). Some of my colleagues will bring them in and tuck them at the back of the classroom. I leave mine on the generic bike rack outside (does have a shelter) but keep it secure with a bloody big chain though the rack, frame and rear wheel and a smaller cable lock through the rack, frame and front wheel. I leave them attached to the rack so I’m not ferrying them around (heavy). Sure, technically someone could get a circular saw and cut through it, but that’s fairly likely to attract attention during the school day and there will be easier targets.

I can also recommend the Knog Scout, a handy little bike alarm (iOS users only) that also contains a tracker that you can use with Apples Find My network.

For many people (particularly with shorter journeys) using a knackered looking, unstylish bike for commuting reduces the chance of someone bothering to nick it. You’ll see this tactic in Cambridge (old bikes chained up everywhere).

Have a backup plan

There are things that can go wrong (as with any type of commute) but you can mitigate for many of them by having a loose plan. For example

  • Feeling ill/exhausted – don’t be a hero. Get a lift with a colleague, use the car (if you have one), public transport or even use some of the money you’ve saved and get a taxi. The bike commute is meant to be both enjoyable and sustainable so don’t be a martyr. Likewise with extreme weather.
  • Bike out of order – there are times when your bike may be broken or at the bike shop for maintenance. Either do the things listed above, or have a spare bike. I’ve got an old road bike that I can use (different route required) when needed.
  • Puncture whilst commuting – this can happen with cars too so not exclusively a bike thing. Tubeless tyres can mitigate against this. If your tyres are tubeless (some will need converting) then they have a sealant in them that seals any small punctures as they occur. Failing that, learn to change an inner tube and take one with you (it’s a lot easier than changing a car tyre). Worst case scenario you need to get a mate/taxi to collect you and get you to work (or you walk the rest).

I’ve had multiple car related issues in my teaching career that have hindered my commute (punctures, minor crashes, wipers broken etc) and to be honest bike issues are generally easier to sort.

Enjoy the sleep!

Honestly, I’ve not slept this well in years. The extra exercise and the fresh air really help me get good quality sleep. Make the most of it, get to bed early and get out of bed with a spring in your step, ready for the morning commute.

Anything else?

Any questions? Obstacles stopping you from bike commuting? Feel free to post below. I might not know the answers, but if not then someone else might be able to help…

Why I’m loving the teacher bike commute

Riding the bike is the easy part!

I’m now 3 weeks into the academic year at a new school. It’s 7 to 8 miles from home, so I sold my car (we’re now a one car family) and committed to commuting by bicycle. Admittedly it’s only been a few weeks, but so far I’m absolutely loving it. Here’s why…


Cars can be (increasingly) expensive beasts to run. I took a fairly hefty pay cut when I moved school (yes I know, not necessarily sensible during a cost of living crisis, but totally worth it and no regrets). When looking at how to cut costs I did a quick back of envelope calculation and found we were spending nearly £500/month on owning and running a second car (PCP cost, fuel, tax, insurance, service costs etc). That’s a lot of money.

Once you’ve purchased your bike, cycling is very cheap. Occasional maintenance (Youtube can guide even clumsy idiots like myself through some basics, and Reddit is full of great advice) and a service or two every year (depending on mileage) is pretty much it.

Physical health

Cycling is low impact cardiovascular exercise. My commute is around 25-30 mins each way. My Garmin (connected to heart rate monitor) reckons I’m burning off over 200 kcal in each direction (depending on how hard I’m pushing). Not massive, but 400 kcal a day quickly adds up. It’s also improved the quality of my sleep. Not gonna lie, the legs ached a bit by the end of the week, but in a good way.

Mental Health

To be honest, I thought I’d begrudge the journey via bike and was doing it out of practicality. I don’t! It’s one of my favourite parts of the day (even in the rain). One of the things I disliked most about working from home was the lack of a clear start and end. Getting in the bike clears my head, and I’m lucky enough to ride through some nice country trails. The fresh air is exhilarating. It’s one of those “flow” type situations where you have to concentrate and it clears your mind of everything else.

Environmentally friendly

I mean that’s it really. I’m not pumping fumes and CO2 into the atmosphere. Wasn’t my main consideration but a real bonus.


My previous school was 13 miles away and the commute took 20-25 mins by car. My new commute takes around 15-20 mins by car, or 25-30 mins by bike. 10 mins difference. Not a big deal.

And I won’t get stuck in traffic.

Yeah but what about…

So yes there are some logistical challenges and I appreciate it may not be possible for others. But there are often very workable solutions to these challenges (I’ll blog on these later); I didn’t ever think I could commute 80 miles/week by bike until necessity made me look more closely at it. So maybe it’s worth shifting some (or even all) of your school commute to two wheels…

Update: tempted to try the bike commute? I’ve added some hints and solutions to common challenges here.

Teaching and the pursuit of happiness

Global happiness and the anomaly of American women

I’ve slowly been working my way through Steven Pinker’s thorough (aka long), interesting and enjoyable Enlightenment Now. It’s a deeply optimistic book that looks at various measures of human progress, happiness etc and concludes that, despite the regular pessimism in the news, there has never been a better time to be alive.

In the chapter on Happiness, Pinker describes how, overall (and for nearly all social groups), levels of happiness and satisfaction have increased, and anxiety has reduced.

Are we really so unhappy? Mostly we are not. Developed countries are actually pretty happy, a majority of all countries have gotten happier, and as long as countries get richer they should get happier still. The dire warnings about plagues of loneliness, suicide, depression, and anxiety don’t survive fact-checking.

Pinker, Steven. Enlightenment Now (p. 283). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.

Pinker goes on to mention that American baby boomers haven’t gained happiness at the same rate as other people in the developed world, and in particular, American women “have become unhappier just as they have been making unprecedented gains in income, education, accomplishment, and autonomy, and in other developed countries where everyone has gotten happier, the women have been outpaced by the men.”

Why is this? Pinker’s hypothesis is that the freedom that American women have (belatedly) begun to experience brings with it some anxieties:

Now I don’t know if this is actually the case (although it’s a compelling argument), but it got me pondering the sources of my own previous anxieties and stresses, and I think it could certainly go some way to explaining them.

A singular life goal


I trained as a teacher in 2005/6 and my first school was an absolute joy to work at. I had a truly supportive department (who encouraged and nurtured me and forgave my many mistakes). I threw myself into the pedagogical style of the time (discovery learning, learning to learn etc) and was pretty good at it, purely because I was willing to put in the hours to make it work. I was regularly working 60-70 hours/week. Roughly half of each holiday was spent on schoolwork.

This got me lots of positive feedback (from pupils and staff). I was getting praise and this was a good feeling! I got rapid promotion, had a great bunch of encouraging colleagues, and the positive feedback loop continued. It kept me working all the hours under the sun (and I thought it was worth it).

This all sounds totally cringe and pathetic when I read it back now, but here’s the thing: being a teacher had become THE core aspect of my identity. It was what I was apparently good at. And when you’re good at something you tend to want to do it more (and get better). I had ambitions to keep improving, be a headteacher by my mid-thirties, a proper trailblazer.

And there was only really one way I could do that. Work more.

The problem is that teaching isn’t a job with a fixed target. You can never fully complete it. There is always more to do, things to improve. You could give every waking hour to it for a lifetime and still have areas for development. So by putting teaching at the centre of my identity, by making it my main (only?) focus in life, I had set myself an unachievable goal.

I’d set myself up to fail.

Which is pretty much what happened when my first child was born. Spending 60+ hours a week on work became both impossible and undesirable.

Moving the (life) goalposts

It took a while for me to recognise that I couldn’t manage both being the teacher I had built myself up to be AND be a decent parent. I did a suboptimal job of both for a while, and it made me unwell. Like Pinker’s unhappy American women, I had a lot of things to worry about, and a lot of ways to be frustrated. My teacher and father life goals required more mental, physical and emotional energy than I could give, and it just led to anxiety and dissatisfaction. My professional self-identify collapsed. I had to take a step back and reevaluate what I really wanted. When you’re so heavily invested in something that can be a difficult thing to do.

It took a while, but I shifted my targets to something more attainable.

  1. Family first. If I can’t support them properly, other stuff has to change
  2. Be the best damn teacher I can be, within the framework of a sensible work/life balance.

These are the criteria I now measure myself against. Challenging, but attainable, and above all, sustainable (I’ve got another 27 years before I can collect my pension!)

Point 2 is what requires discipline. Some strategies that have been effective:

Now I make time for both (and other stuff)
  • I set myself loose time limits for work (and stick to them).
  • I loathe doing a bad job of something. I’d rather do less (and do it well) than compromise on quality, so I’ve had to get better at saying “sorry, but I’ve not got the capacity” to stuff (including stuff that I’d really like to do).
  • I have routines that mean regular sleep and exercise are as high priority as any other activities.
  • I recognise that guaranteeing myself time to decompress, read, spend time with the family actually makes me a better and more effective teacher.
  • I regularly check myself to make sure I’ve got the balance right, and any big professional decisions are viewed through this lens. There are a couple of occasions where I’ve moved to a role with less responsibility (and a hefty pay cut) to get the work/life balance correct. I’ve not regretted it yet.

Being a teacher can become all consuming, and shifting your identity to incorporate something else significant (like being a parent) can be a real shock. I know I’m not the only teacher who’s faced these challenges. I have colleagues and friends who are dealing with this, right now. And that’s why I’m writing this, in the hope that sharing my experience somehow helps others going through similar.

As teachers we need to be a little kinder to ourselves, reframe our goals, and play the long game. Too many good teachers leave the profession, broken by trying to do too much.

As humanists we want to be driven by compassion, but the targets of our compassion should include ourselves.

Greta Christina, Humanism and a Work/Life Balance

If you’ve experienced similar, and have found workable solutions, I’d love to hear your story.

@Rosalindphys Textbooks: remixed

It’s hard to overstate the impact that Ruth Walker (@Rosalindphys) has had on my teaching.

In July 2017 I was lucky enough to see Ruth present at researchED Rugby on the topic of textbooks. As has become routine at Ruth’s presentations, I was blown away. Her argument for well sequenced textbooks with Shed Loads Of Practice (SLOP) built in was utterly compelling. She’d already made textbooks for the GCSE Combined Science Physics content (a gargantuan task). I was a consultant at the time and made a point of telling literally every KS4 Science teacher I encountered about them, demonstrating their brilliance.

I returned full time to the classroom in September 2018 (2 years out) and Ruth’s textbooks were an absolute lifesaver.

Ruth has revamped them over the summer holidays and they’re better than ever. I want anyone teaching KS4 Physics in my school to make use of them this year, so I’ve remixed them (not improved them, just tailored them to my specific needs) a little bit to suit our own curriculum. I’ve added worked/partial example pairs for the calculations, rejigged the formatting a bit to reduce printing costs, and added a few extra bits in (for example, we’re reteaching conduction and convection at KS4).


In case they’re any use to anyone else, you can find the remixes here:



Forces (motion):

Forces (Newton’s Laws):

I’ll add the others as I get around to tweaking them.

Ruth’s originals and essential reading

Ruth’s originals are here:

If you’re new to the booklet approach (despite some saying that they’ve ALWAYS done this, there’s a whole generation of us for whom well structured textbooks with lots of practice questions are a relatively new thing) then it’s well worth reading her supporting links about how and why to use booklets.

It’s also worth reading this excellent post by James Theobald (@JamesTheo):

Booklets are brilliant but you still need to know your stuff!

Brilliant Blog Posts

I’ve read so many brilliant blog posts that I’ve started to lose track of them all. I thought it made sense to try and keep them in one place, easily accessible, with maybe a few reflective sentences attached. I shall update this regularly asI read/remember them. I may even end up trying to arrange them into some kind of logical order at some point. If anyone else enjoys browsing through them, that’s a bonus!

Adam Boxer: What to do after a mock

There’s so much useful information in this post it’s unbelievable. Yes, it’s about what to do after a mock, but it’s so much more insightful than that. Adam clearly summarises principles behind good assessment design and the limited inferences we can take from them.

Ruth Walker: E.coli and Quality First Teaching

Schools are often drowning in interventions focussed on a number of key pupil subgroups, be it Pupil Premium, middle ability boys [insert subgroup of choice here]. Ruth uses the analogy of an e.coli outbreak in a restaurant as a brilliant analogy for what we should be doing in schools (it makes sense when you read it, honest!).

Rather than focussing on targeted interventions with subgroups we should be ensuring that we provide Quality First Teaching. Cohorts such as Pupil Premium are often the most vulnerable when our standards slip; concentrating on getting the teaching right will provide better outcomes for everyone.

Matthew Evans: When first we seek to control

I think a tweet from Christine Counsell first got me on to Matthew’s blogs. They’re all of superb quality; beautifully written and insightful. This is one of my favourites. It clearly explains why schools are drawn towards generic management practices for appraisal, assessment and tracking etc and the dangers of doing so. Love the final paragraph:

And once we’ve rooted out all this genericism, we must then re-educate ourselves about how students actually learn, and remember what it feels like to trust teachers to know when they are not, and to do something about it. Trust is the main casualty of our comforting genericism. It is time to restore it. No more flight paths, please.

Matthew Evans

Tom Yatton: How leaders can make a great behaviour policy fail (Parts 1 to 3)

A refreshingly honest series of blogs where a school leader writes about the things that school leaders can do that inadvertently undermine what (on paper) should be a highly effective behaviour system.

School leaders (rightly) tend to focus on teachers using behaviour systems consistently and effectively. Tom helpfully categorises common “Leadership Errors”. The effect that errors like these (even from one member of the leadership team) can have on the effectiveness of a behaviour system is significant. A really well written series of blogs. Hopefully he’ll continue to add to them.

Sarah Barker: Nothing to see here – the problem with book scrutiny

A beautifully concise and useful post from Sarah, focussing on both what book scrutiny is good for, but also why books are a poor proxy for learning. It’s full of useful links for further reading, and contains a final killer paragraph:

Looking for evidence of learning is detracting from the things that schools should be pushing forward on – strategies that will actually result in effective, sustained learning.  Some schools’ senior and middle leadership teams are looking for evidence of something that is almost impossible to evidence. Before a book scrutiny, if the answer to the ‘what are we looking for?’ is ‘learning’, then books are not going to yield the goods.

Sarah Barker

Adam Boxer: Simplifying Cognitive Load Theory

Cognitive Load Theory (CLT) was one of the first areas of cognitive science that made me sit up and pay attention. Shamefully I’d not been taught anything about working memory or long term memory, either as a PGCE student or in the first half of my teaching career (despite it being around 30 years old). Learning about the limitations of Working Memory (and how to teach in a way that takes account of these limitations) has been one of the biggest changes in my pedagogy (for the better).

Adam walks the walk here (reducing extraneous cognitive load and gently increasing the intrinsic cognitive load), explaining CLT in a clear and effective way, using simple diagrams to develop a framework teachers can use when planning lessons/tasks. It’s a masterpiece of cog sci communication, and has become one of my “go to” resources when explaining CLT to other teachers.

Lee Donaghy: Working with trainees: my favourite action step – extending ‘Brighten Lines’ into a comprehensive routine

I’d read (and got a huge amount out of) Doug Lemov’s Teach Like A Champion a while back, but Lee’s short but effective post on how he’d built a routine around the Brighten Lines technique both reminded me of its importance and has helped me use it more effectively in lessons. He provides a 10 step checklist for setting pupils off on a task. Apply the checklist and you’ll see a marked improvement in how pupils set about their work with purpose. Really useful.

Science specific

Adam Robbins: How to get the most out of calculation SLOP questions

Shed Loads of Practice (SLOP) has become a important part of my lessons.

Good SLOP:

  • Provides pupils with shed loads of practice, developing both confidence and automaticity
  • Provides scaffolding for pupils so they aren’t just thrown in at the deep end, carefully increasing complexity once previous stages are mastered
  • Reduces workload (once well constructed resources have been produced)

Adam’s excellent blog (and provides useful guidance on how to construct calculation SLOP questions, cleverly using worked examples and partial worked examples (set out beautifully) in order to initially reduce cognitive load. It’s become the basis of how I’ll write calculation SLOP in the future.

Very brief reflections on #rEDRugby 2019

Another truly brilliant #rEDRugby yesterday. Thought I’d jot down a few quick reflections before my brain gets wiped by something else…

Fantastic atmosphere as always. If you’ve never attended a researchED event then I cannot recommend them enough. Everyone is friendly, helpful, eager to share. Always a good mix of regular attenders and first timers. This is my 3rd time at #rEDRugby; it takes me at least 2.5 hours drive each way so the fact that I keep coming back speaks volumes!

Session 1: Adam Robbins

Adam (@MrARobbins) gave an excellent talk on “getting through to locked out learners”. Adam has constructed some really high quality knowledge organisers that can help with this (see here) that I’ve used a lot already this year. They’ve made a real difference. However, Adam’s session was about much more than that; it was a fascinating insight into what can motivate (and demotivate) pupils, the riskiness of learning, and ways we can try and break the negative cycles that pupils can find themselves in.

Adam discussed Jonathan Haidt’s Elephant and Rider analogy (note to EduTwitter: Adam doesn’t think pupils are elephants and doesn’t ride them). I thoroughly enjoyed Haidt’s “The Righteous Mind” and it was very useful to see the analogy used in the context of demotivated learners. When working with pupils I regularly try to appeal to the rider. I probably need to give more thought as to how I engage with the elephant.

Session 2: Pritesh Raichura

I’ve seen Pritesh (@Mr_Raichura) a number of times now, and every time I do I get something new I can try out straight away. He really is the master when it comes to presenting information to pupils in a clear, well constructed way. There was no visualiser available for Pritesh, but (totally unflustered) he delivered a really useful, practical session on dual coding, using diagrams/images that provide structure for knowledge and aid retrieval.

Pritesh’s blog posts and presentations have had a massive influence on my teaching, and the visualiser (as opposed to the whiteboard or PowerPoint) has been my standard way of presenting information this year. I owe him a great debt.

A few points I found really useful:

  • Structured diagrams can act as retrieval cues. Pupils can recognise the gaps in incomplete diagrams and know they need filling
  • Give explicit instruction on how to do diagrams (provides consistency and avoids pupils faffing)
  • Some handy delivery tips (“tell it like it’s a secret!”, plus the visualiser head twitch!)

Session 3: Science Knowledge Networking

I think this has got real potential! Time and space to discuss education with others is an important part of researchED. A couple of suggested improvements though:

  • Session 3 was possibly too early. There had only been 2 Science sessions so far. The sessions are great at triggering discussions, so putting the networking nearer the end of the day would provide more stimulus for discussion/debate.
  • I’d go with one big networking session (rather than different sessions for different areas) if there’s a space big enough. There’s a lot of overlap between areas anyway (we discussed Leadership a lot in the Science session for example) and bringing more people together would lead to more discussion.

Session 4: Tom Millichamp

I’ve really enjoyed reading Tom Millichamp’s (@TChillimamp) stuff on equations in Science (and how to teach them) and have already adapted his ideas for using with my own classes. The level of thought that he puts into how to support pupils with calculations is impressive. His use of language in emphasising the importance of setting out calculations properly (“prove you’re not wrong”, the EVERY method) is clever.

I’m often wary of using the term “metacognition” as it’s often used in a fairly airy fairy meaningless way, but Tom provided some really practical and effective metacognitive strategies. For example, getting pupils to use Because, But, So to explain mistakes in incorrect calculation procedures, getting them to annotate their calculations to explain what they are doing.

I often find some of the best things I pick up from researchED are the simplest. Tom might win the prize for this one: adding Box The Question to SLOP worksheets. Pick a few key questions that pupils need to box off in their books when they’ve answered them. Boxing them off makes them more visible, so when you’re scanning the books during the lesson you can easily see what to read and provide feedback on. Simple and effective.

Session 6: Matthew Benyohai

Matthew (@BenyohaiPhysics) is possibly (along with Deep Ghatura) the most clued up Science teacher I know when it comes to assessment. He was absolutely brilliant.

Not only did he devastatingly dismantle a lot of common (poor) practice in schools, he provided useful strategies for how we CAN use assessment effectively.

There was too much in this for me to effectively summarise here. I’ve been thinking a lot about assessment, data and target grades over the last few months, so will have to do a longer blog post about this at some point.

Session 7: Ruth Walker

As a profession we are massively privileged to have people like Ruth Walker (@Rosalindphys) sharing what they know. She really is on another level. Every time I see Ruth she causes some kind of seismic shift in what, how and why I teach.

I’m hoping she’ll blog a transcript of her session at some point. For a curriculum novice like myself it was a fascinating insight into both the philosophy and practicalities around Michael Young’s Powerful Knowledge. She has a deep understanding of both the theory/knowledge around curriculum and the leadership required to deliver it effectively. As always, magnificent.

My Teaching Hall of Shame: mistakes I made so you don’t have to.

Update: What Adam started has led to further confessionals! You can read the other volumes (so far) here:

This is a quick follow up on Adam Robbins’ entertaining, embarrassing and useful post “The follies of yoof: mistakes I made so you don’t have to.” We’ve been having some cathartic confessional conversations recently about the things we did early in our teaching career. Things that (at the time) felt like a good idea. In fact, sometimes they felt like sheer genius! However with the benefit of hindsight, and with a better understanding of the basic principles of cognitive science, I can now see that they were pretty ridiculous. Our hope is that by sharing these embarrassing activities, and explaining (if it isn’t already bleedingly obvious) why they are a bad idea we may discourage anyone else from taking a similar path.

I’ll be honest, I’ve done an awful lot of silly things in my teaching career, so narrowing it down to a few may be tricky, but here goes…

1. The flaming tampon hydrocarbon lesson

My second year of teaching, and I had to teach a middle ability Y11 class about Hydrocarbons. You know, how length of chain effects combustion rate etc.

I’m a physicist, so I’m using that as my excuse for what happened next.

I was planning the lesson and turned to a couple of Chemistry colleagues for guidance. I explained how I wanted to demonstrate how the different hydrocarbons burnt at different rates by burning them simultaneously. Maybe there was something absorbent I could soak in the hydrocarbons before setting them alight?

One of my colleagues joking suggested tampons. Challenge accepted.

I googled “burning tampon” and this was one of the more tasteful images that popped up. I’ve no idea what’s going on…

I purchased some tampons from my local supermarket (think it was Tampax Super Plus, if you’re interested). This involved a slightly awkward phone call to my mother whilst perusing the lady products aisle to find out which would be the most absorbent. I soaked 4 tampons in different hydrocarbons and suspended them via the string from a horizontal metal bar clamped above a basin of water. The stage was set.

As you’d expect, the pupils viewed the demonstration with a mixture of excitement and bemusement. They thought the whole thing was very funny. My rep as a “safe” teacher continued to rise. The demonstration worked pretty well; the short chain hydrocarbon tampons burnt more quickly than the long chain ones and fell into the basin of water in suitably dramatic fashion.

Why it’s a bad idea

Just in case you really needed this explaining…

  • Prof D Willingham’s “Memory is the residue of thought” might be one of the most used quotes in cognitive psychology but with good reason. It was certainly true in this case. Turns out this demonstration is really good for getting pupils to remember when Mr Pritchard set fire to tampons. It wasn’t so good at getting pupils to learn anything about hydrocarbons. The tampons became the focus of attention, and as a result became the lasting memory they had of that lesson. This is the double-edged sword of engagement, and it’s hard to wield it successfully. Engagement can improve attainment, but it can also distract from what you want pupils to learn. There are better ways of engaging pupils than novelty demonstrations…
  • Daft activities like this undermine your position as a teacher. I had a few uncomfortable conversations with parents at Parents Evening that year. It’s hard to tell parents that their children aren’t taking their studies seriously enough when you’ve set fire to tampons in their lesson. I had a father throw that back at me, and he was right.
  • CLEAPSS probably don’t have a risk assessment for it.

2. GCSE Revision Pass The Parcel

Yay! Party games! There’s been a bit of heated discussion on Twitter recently about the use of games in lessons. Back in the day I was all about the games. Pupils will learn more if it’s fun, right?

I don’t think this was an original idea; I would have got it from a consultant or a colleague or a book or something. However it seemed like a great idea; revision lessons can be a bit dry, so if I make it into a party game, pupils will enjoy it and then learn more!

I spent about 2 hours the night before the lesson constructing a parcel. It had some kind of box of chocolates in the middle and a lolly between each layer (all bought on my own lower-end of Main Scale salary). There were 32 in the class so I did 32 layers; I’d try and rig it so that every pupil got a question and a treat.

I’ve just read that back and realised how massively naive I was!

It was nothing like this and more like Hunger Games.

Why it’s a bad idea

  • The pupils were solely focussed on winning, not on answering questions. Surprise surprise. Some cheated, argued, did whatever they could to get more than one layer. Once it became unfair other pupils resented the whole activity. The focus was on the game, not the learning
  • The whole activity lasted about 20 minutes. It took me hours to put together.

“One of our most important goals as teachers is to cause students to do as much of the cognitive work – the writing, the thinking, the analyzing, the talking – as possible.”

Doug Lemov
  • During the activity each pupil only answered 1 question. 1 question in 20 minutes. Total waste of time. They weren’t interested in the other questions being asked. Lemov uses the term “Ratio” to describe the amount of work done by pupils during the lesson. In this activity the ratio is rock bottom.

3. The Webquest

Ah, the web quest. A classic example of “we have this ICT resource, we need to use it”.

A web quest, for those of you lucky enough to have never experienced one, is essentially an online treasure hunt. You provide pupils with some clues/questions to answer, give them the relevant URLs, and away they go on an exciting journey of knowledge accumulation through the exciting realms of cyberspace!

Actually telling pupils stuff was a big no-no in those days, so if you had access to laptops/an ICT suite a well planned webquest was perfect! Really tech-savvy teachers like myself would even provide pupils with access to a Word document on the NETWORK so that pupils didn’t have to type the URLs in by hand. Real 21st Century skills.

WARNING:Such is the nature of the internet that Webquests are still out there in the wild

Why it’s a bad idea

  • Technology fails. Pupils forgot logins. It took some laptops 15 minutes to get started. Batteries died. School filters blocked required pages. Websites failed.
  • Technology distracts. When the novelty of the web quest starts to fade (about 10 minutes) the allure of Stick Cricket or The Impossible Game grows strong. As does searching for very dodgy images/memes.
  • MOST IMPORTANTLY: Skimming through web pages and copying down a few sentences does not equal learning.

The web quest was the pumped up tech version of the “Knowledge Hunt” activity that I still occasionally see used in lessons. You know the one; posters of info stuck on the walls, pupils walking around taking notes, filling in a grid, and (more often than not) talking to each other, poking each other, mucking about etc rather than learning things.

Knowledge Hunts are often rubbish because of the extraneous cognitive load provided by “hunting” for information, the split attention effect, and the opportunities for distraction. The pupils most disadvantaged by these strategies are the pupils who need our help the most; those pupils who already have a knowledge gap.

I used to do this kind of thing so often, and I’m angry and ashamed about it. I know I’m not alone.

Doing this kind of stuff nearly broke me as a teacher. It was time consuming and ineffective. It may have been “fun”, but my pupils all seem a darn sight more appreciative of the way I teach now, and they’re certainly learning more.

How you can help

As Adam has suggested in his blog, it would be useful to collate some more of these cautionary tales. I’d certainly like to hear them, and I’m sure others will too!

And finally…

Please don’t hate/judge me. I’m much better at teaching now, honest!

It’s done when it’s done: ditching the lesson as the unit of planning

The perfect (Ofsted) lesson

I used to be a bit of an expert at planning lessons. I’d spend a lot of time doing it. In my early years of teaching it was the (then still fairly cutting edge) 3 part lesson. Engaging starter to hook them in, a meaty main section (where I’d find devious ways for pupils to discover things for themselves) and a snappy plenary to check understanding. This later evolved into the 5 part Accelerated Learning cycle, and then (in a different school) the similar TEEP cycle. There was a real craftsmanship to planning lessons like this, but it was time consuming and (despite best intentions at the start of the academic year) it was totally unsustainable. In reality I’d only plan in that level of detail when I was being observed (which was fairly often) or when I was putting together lesson plans and resources for other Science teachers to use.

The TEEP Learning Cycle: simple diagram, unnecessarily complex planning process.

There were many problems with this approach. What happened if the main part took longer than anticipated? Do you plough on and stick with the timings in your lesson plan, deliver the plenary and move on to the next class? Or do you spend more time on the main part and (OH THE HORROR) finish the lesson WITHOUT the plenary? And then the fantastic plenary you’d planned and produced resources for was no longer any use. Or what if you finish early and don’t want to start the content from next lesson yet?

My lesson planning Bible in the ’00s

Reusing the lesson plans was also often ineffective. Different classes would require a different teaching approach, the timings would be out and you’d end up planning a different lesson for every class.

To do the job “properly” I pretty much had to spend more time planning the lessons than I spent delivering them. Then around 2012 Hattie’s Visible Learning unwittingly triggered a Marking and Feedback frenzy. Add triple marking to the level of planning I was doing and I had no chance. The workload broke me. That is a story for another time, but ultimately my teaching career was saved by cognitive science and evidence-informed practice.

My lesson planning present

Now the structure of my lessons is very different. I plan teaching sequences well in advance (David Didau has written some good blog posts on this) but planning for individual lessons is a lot easier.

Two areas of cognitive science have had a big impact on how I plan lessons; Desirable Difficulties (particularly retrieval practice and the spacing effect) and Cognitive Load Theory.

If I were to describe my current lesson planning process in bullet points it would look a little like…

  • Plan the lesson (a post-it note often does the job) after (and not before) the previous lesson. How the previous lesson went is often the most important factor as to what I need to do next. There’s little point planning the individual lesson further ahead than this as I tend to have to then re-plan the lesson anyway. The exception is when I need practical resources and need to give the technicians time to sort kit.
  • Put together a Retrieval Practice starter. I tend to do a low stakes quiz at the start of most lessons. It’s become routine for pupils now, and they can really see the benefits. Sometimes I use retrieval roulette, sometimes I make up questions and project them via the visualiser. The questions are based on previous content, plus a few from the last few lessons to help prime pupils for the next part of the sequence. I’m going to try to tweak my routine for this slightly in light of Craig Barton’s talk at ResearchED Blackpool but building in Retrieval Practice is having a tangible effect on how much pupils retain. I’ve seen a real improvement when it comes to mock exams and answering questions from last year’s topics, and it’s also boosting pupil confidence.
  • Plan a recap of the last lesson(s). This is the most fluid part of the lesson planning process, as it really depends on how the previous lesson went. Sometimes it can be a 5 minute recap (lots of questioning) to remind pupils what we learned about in the previous lesson. More often than not it’s a quick recap followed by independent practice. These can be SLOP questions, a past paper question or two, or I get them to write a short paragraph… The only time I don’t do this is if I need the whole lesson for something like a required practical investigation, or if the new content is pretty much unrelated to what we did in last lesson (new unit, for example).
  • Plan for the delivery of new content. This is the bit that requires the most thought, but it’s also the bit that comes with experience. I can plan this very quickly when I’m teaching Physics but it requires more thought when I’m teaching Chemistry or Biology (less developed schema, fewer analogies and well practised descriptions to use, less hinterland knowledge).
  • What is it I want them to know? How can I articulate it clearly and effectively? What aspects of language/vocabulary do I need to consider? What misconceptions might pupils have that I can preempt? What questions should I ask that will get them to really think hard? This is why a clear, well-constructed curriculum and expert subject knowledge are so important. Most of this is done with handwritten notes (some written in advance, some written live as part of the modelling process) presented with a visualiser. Worked examples and modelling often make up a big part of this section of the lesson. I also often make use of Ruth Walker’s textbooks. The explanations and diagrams are excellent, and I think it’s good to get pupils to spend some time reading through the relevant chapter before I then add further explanation, demos and lots and lots of questioning.
  • Plan for independent practice. This is where Shed Loads of Practice (SLOP) comes in. Pupils spend a significant amount of time practising what they’ve learnt (with support and feedback when necessary). Thankfully there are already some brilliant resources out there so this is more about selecting the right resources than developing my own.

And that’s it. Reading it back it seems like a lot more work than it is. It really doesn’t take me that long to plan lessons any more. The bit that takes time is planning the delivery. However, a massive benefit of this approach is that much of it is reusable. The resources used for independent practice can be used again with other classes, or used when reviewing prior content in a later lesson. A lot of my notes are reusable, although when I use them I often find ways to improve them for next time.

What do the lessons look like?

The time spent in each phase of the lesson varies depending on how the pupils are doing, but typically pupils now spend as much time working with the content of previous lessons as they do learning new stuff. This would have been unthinkable 5 or 6 years ago in the era of “show progress in 20 minutes”. A lesson may typically look like

  • 10 – 15 mins: retrieval practice quiz and feedback
  • 10 – 15 mins: reviewing and practising content from last lesson
  • 30 mins: instruction, modelling, SLOP.

However, the beautiful (and sensible) thing is that it really doesn’t matter if any section takes longer than planned. We just carry on where we left off next time.

It’s done when it’s done

One big benefit of teaching in this way is that it removes any artificial constraints on timings. Previously I would feel pressure to “do Terminal Velocity in a lesson” etc. Not any more. It takes as long as it takes. We spend time on a topic until I’m confident that the pupils are confident. Then we move on. If something comes up in the retrieval/review part of the lesson, we spend time on it. It’s responsive teaching.

Pleasingly, it’s not taking me any longer to deliver the course than it used to. I spend less time covering new content, but because the pupils can remember more of their previous learning they’re picking things up more quickly. More developed and more rapidly retrieved schema in their long term memory reduces the burden on their working memory. Previously I was encouraged to teach everything as quickly as possible so that we’d have time at the end of the topic/course to revise (reteach is probably a more accurate word) before the test. Now it may take me a little bit longer to get to the end of the course (not as long as I expected) but the need for reteaching is less. Pupils are learning and revising on the foundations of strong understanding.


There are a couple of minor challenges as a result of teaching this way, but they are minor and happen for the right reasons.

  1. Lesson titles are a bit redundant. It’s our school policy (as in many schools) for pupils to write the title and date in their books at the start of each lesson. Which title do I use? A title that covers the previous lessons content, or one that covers the current lesson? And then sometimes you (rightly) spend more time than anticipated on the retrieval/review part and don’t even get to the new content… But ultimately, who cares? It doesn’t really matter.
  2. Keeping track of where you are. If you’ve got a few classes in roughly the same part of the learning sequence (and using similar resources) it can sometimes be tricky to keep track of where you are with each class. I spend 10 mins at the end of each day having a quick flick through a couple of books from each class and updating my diary accordingly. No big deal.
  3. The formal lesson observation pro forma doesn’t work. You know what? Good. Gives me a chance to change it and explain why I’m not using the pro forma…

Like so many things that are now part of my teaching, I desperately wish I’d been doing this sooner. My lessons are better and my planning time is reduced. Many of the ITT lesson planning pro forma I’ve seen still focus on the lesson as the unit of planning. I’m doing my best to let them know that there is another way…

Short reflections on ResearchED Blackpool

What a day! Really excellent ResearchED. From a logistical viewpoint; not too far from home (more northern ResearchEDs please!), easy parking, rooms all good size and close together, plenty of refreshments (no vegan options at lunch but I’m over it!), space to socialise and brilliant pupils helping out wherever possible.

The sessions were fantastic. Lots of choice with a good spread of topics. I wanted to quickly jot down some stuff before it leaves my brain, so here goes…

Keynote: Daniel Muijs

Daniel opened by concisely summarising why I became so passionate about evidence-informed practice in the first place. “Being evidence informed is a moral duty”. Ultimately it’s a social justice issue. We are morally obliged to do the best we can for our pupils, and we are best placed to do that if we have a good understanding of the research evidence that’s already available to us. The most disadvantaged pupils are those that need our help most.

Daniel mentioned that despite the big improvement in teacher awareness of research etc there was still a long way to go. I think he’s absolutely right. Despite the great turnout (on a Saturday) to events like ResearchED the number of teachers I’ve met who are aware of, for example Retrieval Practice is still a small minority. Research evidence needs disseminating effectively and staff need the time and resources to engage with it properly. Daniel suggests that we need to “invest further in intermediation”. This is something that I’ve considered a big part of my job for a while now, and I’m more convinced than ever that it’s vitally important.

Ruth Walker

She’ll probably cringe if she reads this, but I can’t think of anyone who has influenced my teaching more in the last few years than Ruth (sorry Adam Boxer, close second because Physics!). This is partly because she’s a force of nature and her output of quality blogs/resources is phenomenal (when does she sleep?) but also because of our (for lack of a better term) Zone of Proximal Development. She’s a fellow physicist on a similar evidence-informed journey, but she’s way ahead of me. I know enough to just about keep up and understand what she’s doing, but every interaction I have with her (whether it’s reading her blogs, watching her present, or discussing things with her) expands my horizons. Adam Boxer is the same. I’m like a year 7 pupil with brilliant Y11 mentors, and I honestly consider myself very privileged to know them.

Ruth’s session today was as mind-blowing as ever. I’d read her blogs on Legitimation Code Theory and love how it helps pick apart the structure of knowledge in Science (and other subjects). However, Ruth talking about it gave it extra clarity. I’m sure she’ll blog about her talk sometime soon, but the standout point for me was her discussion of how and why we should reclaim and rejuvenate How Science Works (although it may need rebranding).

Craig Barton

So much useful practical advice from Craig! I thought I had a pretty good retrieval practice/low stakes quizzing setup established but Craig has given me lots of ideas for how to tweak/improve.

Key points/things to do:

  1. Print quizzes out. I normally project them but printing means more heads down concentrating, fewer distractions. Think if I do this in a well organised way I can get benefits without too much workload increase (although I may get nagged about photocopying).
  2. Get pupils to add confidence scores. I’d read Craig’s blog posts on the Hypercorrection Effect, but his session has convinced me I need to start doing this. Errors made with high confidence are more likely to be corrected than those made in low confidence (Carpenter et al 2018). Craig suggests getting pupils to review wrong answers with the highest confidence scores first. Also has benefit of making pupils more aware of what they know and don’t know.
  3. Get teachers to write each other’s quizzes to avoid bias. This makes sense. Too often have I fired up Retrieval Roulette and repeatedly re-randomised until questions appear that I’m confident I’ve taught them well enough to answer. I shouldn’t avoid the tricky questions.

Amy Forrester and Rob Petrie

I’d already read Amy’s marvellous blog on the Performance Management system at Cockermouth High School. It’s a refreshingly simple and downright sensible system that removes really poor proxies for teacher quality like formal lesson observations and data targets and places personalised staff development as the ONLY focal point. It was great to hear Rob talk passionately about why they’ve taken this approach and to hear Amy talk so positively about the impact it has had on both staff development and workload. I was already convinced that this was the way forward for school appraisal systems but it was great to hear Amy and Rob talk about it first hand.

Robin Macpherson

Robin’s session was on effective questioning. He opened with the classic Ferris Bueller classroom scene (“Anyone? Anyone”) which was unnervingly familiar. A large number of questions that I see teachers ask in the classroom (and I’m guilty of this myself) often become just background noise and aren’t really effective in getting pupils thinking.

Robin highlighted some key strategies for effective questioning from Doug Lemov and Martin Robinson (as published in the excellent What Does It Look Like In The Classroom). An area I feel I need to work on is probing deeper with questions after the initial answer (rather than bouncing it on to another pupil), either by getting pupils to apply their answer to another context or to follow up with further questions (could be as simple as a “because” cue to get them to develop their answers). I could also do with expanding my range of question types, planning my questioning more and thinking more in terms of Ratio (See Lemov, TLAC). Lots to think about! The only thing that Robin suggested that I struggled to see much application of in my classroom was the Harkness method. I can see how it would be useful in other subjects but (at the moment, anyway) it feels like it would have limited usefulness for me (and would take some training to get pupils to use it effectively).

Deep Ghatura

Ok, Deep is my number one assessment expert/nerd, and there was so much to take away from his session that I can’t yet begin to summarise it here. Biggest things for me are:

  1. So much of the summative assessment we do in school is useless
  2. The way we try to measure progress is (at best) rubbish or (at worst) dangerously misleading, potentially leading to a huge opportunity cost by focussing interventions on the wrong pupils
  3. The Rasch method looks like one of the best ways of effectively measuring progress, but the assessments need to be set up carefully to make that possible
  4. Understanding of Assessment is one of my areas for development and I need further training on it. It’s not just me though. I feel I know as much as most of my colleagues do about assessment, but I think it’s something that generally teachers don’t know anywhere nearly enough about.

Deep is truly passionate about the effective use of assessment and it’s impossible to come away from his session without a feeling of excitement about a topic that I normally consider really dry. Deep’s session also included an amazing Physics question on temperature (as an analogy for the importance of zero point data) that I’m going to have to try using with pupils. Ruth and I figured out the answer but we had to think about it (although to be fair it was the end of a long day).

Overall another brilliant ResearchED. Thanks to everyone I listened to/conversed with. Now I need to sit down and do some action points so this valuable experience leads to something more tangible.

Already looking forward to ResearchED Rugby!