Applying learning theory in the classroom

A useful perspective on learning theory. In 2016 we might take a more critical view of Gardner than in 2012, but the principles of this post are relevant to the modern classroom.

Education Blogger

Applying learning theories in the classroom

How many of us are aware of the multitude of learning theories that have been written and published over the last fifty years? Furthermore, how many of us actively attempt to apply these theories on a day-today basis in our teaching? With the possible exception of the enduringly popular Bloom’s Taxonomy, we can hazard a guess at very few. However, theories of learning should not be treated as some vague piece of academic reading that you undertook whilst completing your teaching qualification. Moreover, they should certainly not be treated as the sole domain of university academics sat in comfy offices and not having to contend with 9C on a wet Wednesday afternoon. Learning theories can be an excellent resource for developing ideas, resources and strategies that can improve the outcomes of our students and make our own experiences as teacher more interesting and rewarding.

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Adverbs and Opportunities

This sums up very well the nonsense around the high-stakes testing of GPS (or SPaG!). It applies to Y6 as much as Y2. A teacher commented to me yesterday that this robs writing of its fun. The problem is that we are in a time of high prescription and high accountability. The groundwell of parents opposed to the Tests and the pressure from unions to boycott them may have the power to bring about change, but this isn’t going to happen overnight. It was J S Mill who said, ‘my father never gave me a childhood’. These Y2 children, whom jemmaths refers to are not 100 months old! They need their childhood too. Go figure, Nicky Morgan.

The World Is Maths

I wasn’t going to blog about my thoughts on education.  I was going to stick to mathematics and resources, but a conversation on Twitter this week got me thinking, to the point where I had to write.  

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Marking Time

Right now, we might just be seeing a hint of the tide turning against the mad workload with which teachers are burdened. Some more enlightened headteachers – usually those with the confidence of great pupil attainment and progress as a foundation – are beginning to expect less of their staff rather than more.  However, many school leaders are still – understandably – pinned down by the fear of an Ofsted judgement that might be less than good and these folk are finding it hard to release the pressure.  So this blog is about facing reality when it comes to marking.

Much good work has been done around effective feedback. By and large teachers really understand the principle of showing pupils what they have done successfully, what might be their next steps and how to achieve them. But this can become intolerably burdensome. We ned to be confident enough to strike a balance between effective feedback and ponderous detailed marking where the teacher has sometime written more than the pupil. Okay, that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but you know what I mean.

I recently led a review of a vulnerable secondary school. Clearly, leadership were very concerned that marking/feedback was diagnostic, interactive and effective. And there was a real appreciation that leaders should lessen the teacher’s load wherever possible. In practice this meant that English work was marked every three weeks. Good for the teacher, but when we spoke to students they told us, ‘we don’t get our work back quickly enough and, when we do get feedback, it’s sometime too late for us to remember what we had been doing.’ Contrast this with the Science department. On the surface, marking looked a bit haphazard and superficial but what was really happening was that the teacher had a pink and a green marker, students knew that green was good and pink needed attention. As the lesson progressed, the teacher whizzed round the class, looked at developing work in books, and quickly highlighted what needed to be drawn to students’ attention. The result was that everyone knew how well they were doing and what needed attention. because this was while the lesson was in progress, students who needed help could ask for it and get it instantly. Intervention at the point of learning. Which lot of students had the best feedback?  And which took the least time?

This is a message for teachers fighting with a marking load.  We need to be clear who is the audience for our marking.  Is it for Ofsted?  Is it for SLT monitors, or is it for the pupils? The right answer is the last one but how many teachers mark for the first two constituencies? A starting point might be to have a professional discussion with colleagues and leaders around this point.  Look, if the expectation is that you provide detailed, forensic feedback which is accompanied by a follow-up task that you then need to mark. How much work is this?  And how much of it is really effective. A primary teacher taking home 30 books and expecting to mark 30 pieces of pupil response may as well be taking home 60 books. Spare a thought for the secondary English teacher taking home 200 books!

The most effective feedback is always with the child present – it’s a conversation. Or hold the diagnostic discussion with a group. Your task is not to set the child a follow-on task, so much as to find out what they are thinking, why they don’t get it, what is it they don’t understand. Far more powerful than writing a long screed they don’t really understand and setting an activity that they will complete in the way they think YOU want, rather than applying deep understanding. As Doug Lemov ( points out in Teach Like a Champion 2.0, we should never accept kids’ self-reporting. Don’t assume they know just because they say so. Ask a deep question to check it out.

I saw some great feedback recently. The teacher had written, ‘six of these sums are wrong. Which one are they?’  Great marking – it makes the pupil think.

Ross McGill (Teacher Toolkit) has sensible things to say about marking and feedback. Check out his ten marking tips at Also, check out his Five Minute Marking plan at

We’ll come back to this issue of marking quite soon.



Managing behaviour – or running the room?

Sir Michael Wilshaw has always been concerned about the behaviour in the nation’s classrooms. It was way back in his 2012/13 Annual Report that the Chief Inspector referred to ‘The Unlucky Child’ taught in a school where weak classroom management led to poor behaviour which impeded the learning of those who wanted to learn.   This heralded the arrival of the unannounced Ofsted inspection of behaviour and safety.

When I once took over a school that was in special measures I inherited a school where it was fairly frequent for pupils to be seen standing on desks, throwing chairs and inviting their teachers to f**k off.  What is worse was that many of the staff had more or less given up – ‘what do you expect with these kinds of children? They would ask.  The fact of the matter is that what school leaders have to expect is for teachers to do their job. Years ago, Frank Knowles HMI, then responsible for IQD at Ofsted, told me, ‘behaviour you can sort out quite quickly; standards take longer to follow.’  This is true – unless we sort of the behaviour, kids can’t learn.

So, how do we sort out the behaviour? Oddly enough, its more about the classroom management stuff that comes before the behaviour management stuff.  Get the climate for learning right and keep the kids engaged and we’re more than half way there. It’s what behaviour ‘guru’ Tom Bennet calls, ‘running the room’.  No more than that. Indeed, we may cite Teachers’ Standard 7 in performance management, knowing that it’s about managing behaviour, but is it?

Here’s the first part of the standard:-

  • Have clear rules and routines for behaviour in classrooms.

Not much here about managing behaviour – this is about what Robin Alexander in ‘Culture and Pedagogy’ calls ‘rules, routines and rituals’. This starts in the early years classroom and should continue throughout a student’s school career. Who owns the room?

Here’s the second part:-

  • Have high expectations of behaviour, and establish a framework for discipline.

This is about the teacher, not the kids. Expect little and that’s what you’ll get. The greater your expectations, the clearer your rules, the consistency of your approach and the kids know how to behave. When they don’t, well, that’s when you need that clear framework. The students must be aware of the choices they face, the sanctions, consequences and rewards.

Part 3 of Standard 7 says:-

  • Manage classes effectively, using approaches which are appropriate to pupils’ needs.

No more, no less – manage the class. Teachers need to learn the approaches that are appropriate to their students’ needs. It is rare that this comes intuitively but fail to bother about learning strategies and you’ll soon be in trouble.

Finally, here’s part 4:-

  • Maintain good relationships with pupils, exercise appropriate authority, and act decisively.

To some extent, it will always come down to relationships. Wrecking a relationship with a student takes minutes, rebuilding it may take years. The business of authority is important too, and this is partly about relationships and respect. You may be AN authority since you’re the teacher but being IN authority is earned. And acting decisively…well most teachers will agree that this is important. Even if you’re wrong!

We will revisit aspects of managing behaviour in the next few blogs. This is just the preamble. Establish good relationships, lay down the absolutes and be consistent. Even if you struggle with managing behaviour, this is a start.

Some more thoughts about pedagogy

It was way back in 2012 when the Chief Inspector, speaking at the RSA, referred to the ‘stultifying’ effect of formulaic lesson planning. I agreed then and I agree now. And we’ve moved on a bit from 2012; since then we’ve had the Mike Cladingbowl missive on why Ofsted will no longer be grading teachers or lessons, we had the Ofsted  document about what they don’t expect schools to do and we’ve had it all bolted together in the Common Inspection Framework giving a clear lead to inspectors NOT to expect any particular pedagogy or assessment system, or frequency of lesson observations.

This is very reassuring, so why is it the schools and school leaders still get nervous about requiring a particular approach?  I don’t want to get political here – that’s the OTHER Education Monkey on blogger – so, having spent much time in advising teachers on how to plan lessons, I thought it worth a few minutes on questioning the whole thing.  In the first instance I’ll stick to the learning objective.  This is nothing new, I’ve said all this before, but I’m repeating it because if continues to be a source of stress to teachers and leaders.

Let’s not get hung up on what it’s called; lesson objective, learning objective, learning outcome… who really cares?  And if you think the kids do, then you’re wrong.  Sure, kids like to know what the lesson is about and teachers MUST understand the specifics of what they expect pupils to learn but, you know, these two things do no necessarily join up!  This is heresy to some school leaders, so I’ll whisper it – you really don’t have to display the learning objective at all. Some of the best lessons I’ve seen have not involved WALT, or WILF, or TIB, or any other members of this menagerie of characters that populate the world of lesson planning. Sometimes kids like to work to what the focus of the lesson has been for themselves. This way, you can be sure that they will let you know if YOU weren’t clear about it. Quite often they like the challenge in the form of a question. And, as soon as you make it a question, you shift the focus onto learning. So, rather than the tedious ‘We are Learning To…’ or “I can…” both of which are too frequently followed by an activity and not the learning (we are learning to write an autumn poem, I can name the parts of a plant…) why not try a question?  Ask yourself, how exciting is it to a ten-year-old to copy down ‘We are learning to understand the key features of a play script’ (yawn)?  So, why not ask simply, ‘how can actors remember all those words? With the supplementary question, ‘…and how do they know what to do?’  I guarantee you spark kids’ interest more keenly, you’ve saved all that copying out of a convoluted objective, and you’ve immediately given yourself the beginnings of an assessment protocol.  Dylan William, making a similar point, asks, ‘why can’t we just ask students, “why is it colder on top of a mountain when it’s nearer the sun?’

And don’t give me that nonsense about writing down the LO as the title because then you can assess if it was met or not!  If you are clear about the intended learning then surely, both you and the pupil can remember that a lesson entitled ‘How can ice and steam be the same?’ was about solids, liquids and gases.

It takes a bit of getting used to, this use of learning questions, but it’s fun. It’s a lot more fun than some of the stultifying lesson aims I’ve seen. You need to practice. Have a go, now.  I won’t tell anyone,

Some thoughts about Pedagogy

The teaching profession is, quite rightly, re-engaging with the art of teaching (or, perhaps its a craft… or then again, a science). The philosophy behind the new national curriculum for England (for which we need to put aside the political ideology that lurks there too) is that it is not for external agencies such as Ofsted to tell us how to teach, but that schools and teachers should be able to make their own decisions about this.  It’s taking some inspectors, advisers and school leaders a while to catch up to this thinking but there is sense underlying all this. It has long been a concern that, while a one-year teacher training programme enables trainee teachers to serve what is effectively an apprenticeship, such programmes tend to be light on theory.  Compare this with, for example, the Finnish system where teaching requires a 5-year master’s level preparation. That gives plenty of time for deep study of theory and praxis.

I have so far avoided using the term ‘pedagogy’, not because I do not value it but because a paper that I read recently has made me think about what we really mean. In this piece, by Mark K Smith, the writer explores the origins of pedagogy and, in doing so, asks some interesting questions. Smith points out that the paidagogos of ancient Greece had a much wider role than simply teaching. Rather than simply transmitting knowledge, the paidogogos was responsible for the student’s behaviour and moral development. I remember, years ago, reading this in The Teacher by E B Castle and I’d lost that sense of wrap-around development of the child in my own narrowing sense of pedagogy.

Smith makes the very good point that, when we speak of pedagogy today, we really mean ‘teaching’. Strictly speaking, ‘teaching’ is didactics. The didaskoulos of Ancient Greece was a mere employee; the trusted Paidogogos – albeit usually a slave – a member of the household.

So maybe it helps us to separate out pedagogy from didactics. When we are looking at ways to teach, that’s didactics, but when we’re looking at the whole child, that’s pedagogy.  I realise that’s not going to change much, but it helps me to be clear in my mind. As part of work that I do with trainee teachers I ask, ‘tell us about a great teacher that you remember’ and, interestingly, they will almost invariably talk about a teacher whose personal characteristics, whose infectious enthusiasm for their subject, whose care of their students and their learning lit some kind of fire for them. W B Yeats said that ‘education is the lighting of a fire’ and that seems to be a product of pedagogy, rather than dry didactics. In the NFER ‘Mapping of Seminal Reports on Good Teaching’ (Rowe et al 2012), the three key areas were teaching environment, teaching approaches and teacher characteristics. Maybe the first two are didactics but the third is definitely pedagogy.

Find Mark K Smith’s paper on InfoEd at