Stretch and challenge in the classroom

Written by: Debbie Light | Published: 28 June 2017

Stretch and challenge in practice – Debbie Light offers some practical strategies to raise the bar in your classroom for all pupils

Implementing a stretch and challenge model in your classroom requires teachers and students to recognise that learning should be difficult. This may seem like a pretty obvious statement to make but often, without recognising it, we set a limit on what we think students can do.

Stretch and challenge is knowing your students really, really well, through a combination of scrutinising a range of hard and soft data to enable us to make the best decisions when planning for students’ learning.

Once you’ve diagnosed your students’ strengths and barriers to learning, there are a whole host of options you can implement to raise the bar in your classroom.

The options discussed in this article all have one factor in common: a belief that all students can produce excellent work once they know what it looks like and are given appropriate tools and support to make it happen.

Learning intentions

First of all, let’s be absolutely clear: differentiated learning outcomes must be removed from all classrooms if a stretch and challenge model is to be embedded into everyday practice. You are signalling to students that you’ve made a decision that only a few can reach the top. If students see there is a choice of how much they will learn in a lesson, then it is too tempting for them to coast along doing the bare minimum.

Learning intentions are an integral part of communicating to your students that you expect all of them to think deeply every lesson. Rather than waste time getting students to copy down vague learning objectives and outcomes, move towards an enquiry question that will anchor the learning and everything the students do in a lesson or series of lessons to respond to the question posed by the teacher.

Professor Dylan Wiliam, in his book Embedding Formative Assessment, explains that students sharing, clarifying and understanding learning intentions is a key part of assessment for learning; those students who have a clear picture of their learning journey are more able to reflect on their progress over time and take responsibility for knowing how to move forward.

Independence, resilience and TAs

Ask any teacher what they want from their students and nearly all of them will say “I want them to be more independent”. In our quest to make students more independent, we have forgotten that they need to know an awful lot before they are ready to work independently. There is no real challenge posed if a student is told to go off and be independent if, once they get there, they don’t have the knowledge or skills to complete the task successfully.

The aim is to encourage students to work for extended periods of time without relying on the teacher’s constant input. Professor John Hattie, alongside Gregory Yates, in Visible Learning and the Science of How We Learn, explore the difference between teachers as activators as opposed to teachers as facilitators.

Teachers as activators results in a much higher effect size; some of the key actions they take are setting up tasks with the goal of mastery learning and teaching students metacognitive strategies.

If students are going to work independently, then they need to have a clear goal in mind where the steps to success help students to judge how well they are working towards their goal.

Linked to this, they will need to be taught to think in specific ways so that, when they face difficulties, they can draw upon subject-specific strategies and questions to ask themselves to help them select the right domain of knowledge to complete a task.

Where a student has access to support from a teaching assistant, it is vital that the student doesn’t fall into the trap of learned helplessness. The teaching assistant’s role needs to be clearly defined. A well-deployed teaching assistant can encourage students who struggle to work independently by modelling the processes required to develop independence and resilience.

Teaching assistants can ensure that they work alongside students to get into the habit of chunking tasks down into clear steps for success, asking metacognitive questions and verbalising their thinking, which will lead to the creation of excellent work.

Questioning and discussion

Prof Hattie identifies classroom discussion, where students are given the opportunity to respond to challenging questions posed to them, as being integral to accelerating students’ learning.

Robin Alexander, in his book Towards Dialogic Teaching, highlights the over-reliance on IRF (initiation-response-feedback) in the British classroom. Much classroom discussion centres upon the teacher initiating discussion by asking a question, choosing a student to answer and then acknowledging whether the answer is correct.

This cycle is repeated several times with different students. Apart from the issue of how time-intensive this model is, there are two ways it obstructs challenge.

First, only a handful of students are forced to participate – those that are chosen by the teacher. Most students can be a bystander rather than an active participator. Second, it is the teacher who holds all of the power because they are the ones initiating the questions and deciding on the direction of the discussion.

One way of embedding a stretch and challenge model is to experiment with different ways of encouraging greater participation in discussion. The expectation should be that every student is required to think deeply and make a contribution to discussion.

In order for this to happen, set up a series of structured questions that require students to think hard and ensure students have enough time to grapple with the difficult concepts. Also make time for students to construct their own questions and pose them to their peers. Explicitly teach students how to construct different types of questions to generate engaging discussion.

Tasks, resources and groupings

For many years, stretch and challenge was seen as something for the “gifted and talented” group. Normally, it meant an extension task for those who finished their work early; however, the extension work often ended up being more of the same rather than requiring stretching students to think harder.

Setting up choice can be a tricky one to get right and, if done badly, can be detrimental to stretch and challenge if students choose less cognitively demanding tasks. Effectively incorporating choice means setting the bar high and expecting all students to produce excellent work but acknowledging the route to producing this work may be different depending on the students’ needs.

Teachers must think carefully about how a task is scaffolded and carefully selecting resources so all students can access the most challenging work. These resources may include worked examples, literacy scaffolds or graphic organisers. View other students as resources too; group work can prove a nightmare in the classroom if time is not given for students to learn how to operate effectively in a group – they won’t just be able to work together naturally. The best group work is when the cognitive demand of the task actually necessitates more than one student’s input.

Graham Nuthall’s research in The Hidden Lives of Learners found that most of the feedback students get is from their peers and that, alarmingly, 80 per cent of it is wrong! Moreover, for deep learning experiences to occur and be stored in their long-term memory, they need to be exposed to the information at least three times in different formats. Therefore, it is vital that when offering students choices they are held accountable for the work they produce.


There can’t be a teacher on this planet who doesn’t know by now that feedback has a significant effect on students’ outcomes. Yet what isn’t as well promoted is that feedback can also have a negative impact on students. Ego-driven feedback, focusing on the student rather than the task, and grades rather than comments, leads to a decrease in student progress.

Feedback needs to be framed in such a way that it is clear to the student what their learning gaps are and how they can close them before moving onto new learning. Students are notoriously bad at acting upon the feedback given to them by their teachers. If students don’t respond to our feedback, then what’s the point in marking their work?

Another frustration teachers experience is when students hand in work that is just not up to standard due to carelessness or lack of effort. A classroom where stretch and challenge is embedded is one where students know the standard they are aiming for, actively seek out feedback to reach that standard, and have the tools to move their own learning forward by using this feedback to develop their knowledge, skills and understanding.

Prof Wiliam examines the importance of success criteria and pre-flight checklists in Embedding Formative Assessment. Ensure that success criteria for a piece of work makes clear to students how they can demonstrate excellent quality work.

Rather than setting a limit on what we think students can do by creating differentiated criteria, give all students the same criteria but make explicit to them how meeting the criteria becomes progressively more demanding.

Once students have attempted a piece of work, teach students how to use pre-flight checklists which ask students to check their own or a peer’s work against the criteria and highlight areas for development before handing in their very best effort.

Academic vocabulary

Varying levels of literacy is one of the most significant factors in how well a student will do at school. Since academic vocabulary knowledge is at the heart of being a good speaker, reader and writer, it is important that teachers dedicate enough time to explicitly teaching academic vocabulary in their subject areas to challenge students to express themselves with confidence.

Robert Marzano and Debra Pickering’s book, Building Academic Vocabulary, shares a structured approach to teaching academic vocabulary. Begin by providing a description of the word before asking students to create their own description and example in their own words. Using visuals to accompany the word as a memory cue helps students to remember the work.

Ensure that students engage with academic vocabulary on a regular basis through discussion, word games and vocabulary notebooks to consolidate knowledge. As well as Marzano and Pickering’s work, Doug Lemov in Teach Like A Champion has introduced two strategies that raise the language demands of students: Right is Right and Stretch It.

Combining these two techniques, the teacher’s expectations of the students is that a student has not finished until their response is 100 per cent accurate and they have developed their thinking using academic vocabulary and a range of examples. Rather than accepting students’ first responses, giving students an opportunity to practise their response through oral rehearsal results in much more sophisticated thinking.


The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) Teaching and Learning Toolkit informs us that homework in secondary school can have a significant impact on student outcomes. Yet few schools have cracked the homework problem.

If truth be told, many of us can forget to set homework or set something rushed just to keep up with the homework timetable. It’s often the last thing we think about after we’ve planned our lessons. However, getting homework right makes such a difference to the challenge culture. The problem with classwork is that students often don’t have enough time to engage with a challenging task. Homework gives students greater freedom to demonstrate what they really know and produce quality work.

To get over the problem of setting homework for homework’s sake, an alternative is to create a Homework Challenge Bank featuring a range of tasks that require students to consolidate and master key concepts and apply their knowledge in different contexts. If students know that they are expected to complete a set number of the homework challenges by the end of the topic, then this stops the arbitrary setting of homework at inconvenient times.

A note of caution: sometimes students are given homework tasks that seem challenging because they require students to work independently on a project over an extended period of time. While these homework projects can be a lot of fun, many students struggle with such open-ended tasks. If students are producing a piece of homework over a sustained period of time, make sure they are provided with clear structure and steps to success so they can self-regulate. Finally, celebrate and showcase students’ homework as this will encourage students to keep challenging themselves as their efforts won’t have gone unnoticed.


Whatever approach you take, embedding a stretch and challenge model in your classroom takes time. Students may struggle at first with the increased demands placed upon them. However, if you stay resolute and communicate with students the changes you are making and the benefits these changes will bring, they will end up appreciating your high expectations of what they can achieve.

  • Debbie Light is an advanced skills teacher and a deputy head in a London secondary school. She is the co-author of Lesson Planning Tweaks For Teachers and is one half of @TeacherTweaks. Her new book, Stretch and Challenge, from Bloomsbury Education is out now (ISBN: 9781472928405) priced £22.99.

Powerful Knowledge: What it is, why it’s important, and how to make it happen in your school

 A great blog by Rosalin Walker on powerful knowledge:

by In his book of 1971 “Knowledge and Control”, Michael Young saw knowledge as a tool of oppression and an expression of hegemony of the ruling elite but then by 2008 he’s dramatically changed his mind and says that knowledge is crucial for social justice, we should be teaching it in schools, etc. etc. He develops this into the model of “Powerful Knowledge” in 2014 in Knowledge and the Future School – and then further in Curriculum and the Specialisation of Knowledge.

To understand Powerful Knowledge it’s easiest to look at what it’s a response to. Young describes 3 models of curriculum, which he calls Future 1, Future 2 and Future 3. Future 1 is seen as the traditional, private school and grammar school curriculum, and it has two distinct components that we need to draw out: its approach to knowledge and the social enactment of the curriculum. In future 1, knowledge is treated as fixed, given and unchanging, and students study traditional subjects like literature and history as a participation in something from the past. Socially, and historically, this curriculum was only available to children of the elite. Initially this was because only very advantaged children went to school at all, then as time went on there were various reforms and acts of parliament that meant that all children went to school but the more disadvantaged ones tended to leave school earlier, and then as schooling up to 16 was made compulsory, this traditional curriculum was seen to not be accessible to children from disadvantage. Future 2 is the 1970s onwards so-called progressive reaction against Future 1. This model was a response to two things. Firstly, it was a rejection of the perceived “shutting out” of children from disadvantage that took place under Future 1. And secondly, it was a reaction to the treatment of knowledge-as-fixed that lies at the heart of Future 1. – and this begins with a very worthwhile philosophical issue, which we’ll look at now. The truth is, knowledge is not fixed. Knowledge is not a given. Knowledge is something we pursue, fight for – and yes, construct. In philosophy there are two broad groups regarding knowledge and truth: the realists and the anti-realists. If you’re a realist, you believe that truth is a thing, an objective thing, it exists independently of the individual, it’s “out-there”. This is the natural position to take, almost all laypeople are realists even if they don’t know the term, we believe in objective truth. The problem is, it’s ridiculously difficult to justify! Descartes realised this back in 1641 – are you sure this table exists? It could be just a dream. Everything could be just a dream -we actually can’t be certain of anything beyond our own existence – this is what he meant when he said “I think therefore I am.” – at least if everything is just a dream then there has to be someone who is having the dream! Hume discussed a related problem in 1739 when he discussed the problem of induction – we think that the Sun will rise tomorrow because it has risen every day until now, you know we feel like that’s good grounds for believing in it as a truth– but the then you’ve got the turkey who wakes up on the 25th December cheerfully expecting to be fed like he has every morning up until now – so actually past experience isn’t good enough to justify belief in truth either… So then what happened in the 20th century was that anti-realism really began to be a big thing, with philosophers like Foucault and Derrida really going to town and saying things like there is no truth, my truth is just as good as yours, the truth of tribal medicine is just as good as the truth of science… And this obviously has problems because it’s just incredibly annoying! Of course science is better! You’re not going off to see a witch doctor if you’re having a heart attack. But it’s actually very difficult to give a sound argument that, to quote philosopher of science Hasok Chang, takes realism beyond foot-stamping. And then kind of alongside this was a lot of political philosophy, a lot of talk about power, and hegemony, and ruling elites. And out of this background grew a politically progressive, anti-realism and anti-knowledge movement, and it became big not only amongst philosophers, but also historians, sociologists, and teacher-educators.

So you can see how Future 2 came about. There is a problem with the treatment of knowledge in Future 1. Proponents of Future 2 took the realisation that all knowledge is created by people – scientists create scientific knowledge, historians create historical knowledge… and it took it to what we might call an extreme post-modernist or constructivist conclusion: that there is no “best knowledge” or that the criteria for “best knowledge” are highly variable and context-dependent: thus the curriculum should be defined by pupils’ interests or situation, or by relevance to future employment. In future 2 we saw students studying rap music in English, making paper mache solar systems in science, and woodwork and hairdressing instead of languages and triple science, especially in areas of high social disadvantage. I find myself foot-stamping again. I feel like I know that Shakespeare and atomic theory should be in the curriculum, and not Eminem and hairdressing– and I feel like this is the case for all students, regardless of their background, but how can I justify that given the philosophical problems I’ve discussed? The answer lies in social realism. Social realism says that it’s precisely because knowledge is constructed that we can identify best knowledge: the best knowledge in a subject is defined by the subject community. Shakespeare is the best because our subject communities, our wonderful professors who have given their lives to studying the subject, who have apprenticed themselves to the great minds before them, and through them to a great chain of thinkers reaching back really to the ancients – they agree that it is the best. Social realism is the arbiter of Powerful Knowledge– your realism is derived from the sociological phenomenon of subject communities.

So Young proposes Future 3, where Powerful Knowledge, best knowledge as defined by the subject community, is taught and it is taught to all children, regardless of their background. This is an alternative to both Future 1 and Future 2.    Powerful knowledge is the entitlement of all, regardless of background. Because the other thing is this. When Future 1 was created, there was no cognitive science. There is now. We know now about cognitive load theory. We know now how to manage the input to students to avoid overloading working memory. We know about using retrieval practice. We know, that there are no known limits to what can be stored in the long term memory. And this is for everyone. Your class, your social background, don’t determine whether these things work for you or not. These are universals. We’ve got schools up and down the country, teaching powerful knowledge to children from the most challenging backgrounds and starting points. It’s possible. Future 3 says that there is best knowledge, that all children are entitled to it, and it is our duty to teach it and to teach it well.

Powerful knowledge is knowledge that opens things up to students: opportunities, further knowledge, and transcendance of the every day. Powerful Knowledge is typically abstract or rarefied, and will not be picked up by students from their everyday life. It requires expert teaching. It’s ambitious, empowering, and beautiful.

 Powerful Knowledge is the substantive content, the facts, claims and narratives, the givens in a discipline, that are broadly agreed by the subject community as being the best knowledge in the discipline. Obviously that’s not entirely straightforward a lot of the time but it does give us a clear guiding principle that articulates why we must reject things like “make a paper mache solar system” or “create a rap about decline of local industry”. And then the second key aspect of Powerful Knowledge is this acute awareness of the social, the disciplinary element. How is knowledge produced and approved in a discipline? What are the rules and procedures that we follow in order to have our work validated? How does the conversation progress? It is in this social dimension that Powerful Knowledge locates its claim to “best knowledge” and it is through this dimension too, that students gain more power than they could have from Future 1. Students who are taught the disciplinary element understand the subject to be evolving, and to be something that they could contribute to, should they pursue it. Now – what we can’t have here is people thinking ooh the disciplinary element is what gives power, let’s do lots of disciplinary, let’s cut down on the substantive because that doesn’t give power – NO. I just want to make sure I’m completely clear. For Powerful Knowledge, you have to have all the substantive, all the content, all the best content. Without this there is no power. What the disciplinary does is only powerful when it’s coupled with the substantive. You have to have both. So what that means is you don’t have any curriculum time to mess about: every second counts.

At my school our motto is “Powerful knowledge for global citizens”. First of all we make sure every child could read and we make sure they read challenging stuff every day. The ability and habit of reading is the most powerful thing of Subject leaders choose ambitious content designed to take students beyond their own experience and to open up “the great conversations” for them. What do we mean by ambitious content? We think very carefully about the knowledge you want children to learn over the course of their 5 years or whatever in your school, taking the specification as a starting point and adding in extra knowledge where it makes sense to do so. And then it means working backwards from that, planning a sequence of units that give students the knowledge they really need to access later stuff. Whenever I talk about sequencing I feel like it sounds ridiculously obvious, like why wouldn’t you teach something before you need it for something else, but every single specification, scheme and textbook I have looked at has serious problems with its sequencing. And like, our plan isn’t just that we’re going to cover all this stuff, it means we’re going to teach it as close to perfectly as we can – we plan our sequencing, and our explanations, and our practice questions meticulously so that very challenging content makes sense to all our students, they can understand it and use it, and we plan things to make sure they remember it and can use it later, like retrieval practice and cumulative assessments, and we’re going to be monitoring our students success over time and supporting them with long-term memory where we need to. We use booklets so we can quality assure the content, sequencing, explanations and practice questions from the outset. What does ambitious content look like in our subjects? In art, it means students study the formal elements of art from day 1 in year 7. In English it means studying texts like The Odyssey and Frankenstein instead of Holes and Harry Potter. In general, it means we stop messing around handing out exercise books for 5 minutes every lesson, or waiting for quiet, or spending time moving around into groups when we could do something much more quickly as a whole class – we make every second count because our students only get one go at this!

How can leaders make this happen in a school? I have three main pieces of advice: First of all: You have to get behaviour right. You have to. You have to have high expectations of conduct in all areas of the school and at all times of the day. Teachers need to be able to teach without interruption. You have to make this happen. In nearly all schools this means centralised detentions so that there is no disincentive, not even an unconscious one, for staff to overlook behaviour that does not meet your high standards. But centralised detentions aren’t enough – your policy needs to be absolutely crystal clear so that staff are confident in applying it. This means you need to specify what is and is not permitted in every place and at every time of the school day. Now of course you can’t specify every possible behaviour, so you need principles that staff can apply to situations. You need to discuss examples of these principles in practice and you need to do this often. It’s not enough to be clear – you need to be clearer than clear because I guarantee staff will have been told to do stuff in the past that then just sort of faded away. Your staff need to know that everything stipulated in the behaviour policy is not one of those things – just saying them, even saying them extremely clearly, isn’t enough. You need to make them lived. You need to thank staff for using the policy to ensure high standards, because a lot of the time it’s easier to ignore things. You need to spot occasions when staff didn’t apply the policy, and you need to speak to them to make sure they know they are backed up, and indeed have a duty, to use it in that situation next time. I think you need to put it in people’s performance management that they need to apply the policy all day, every day, everywhere in the school. Look – without brilliant behaviour, anything else you try to do will just be a waste. Our students deserve the best. We have to get it right.

The second thing you need is to intellectualise your workforce. Why is this controversial? I don’t get so many eyebrows raised nowadays when I’m banging on about behaviour but I do for this. Why? Is it so outrageous? Knowledge is the peak of human endeavour and teachers are the treasurers, we keep it safe and pass it on to the next generation. If that’s not an intellectual profession then I don’t know what is. If you’re leading on Powerful Knowledge in your school then you need to articulate a vision and you need to share it with your staff, and you need to intellectualise your staff if you want them to share your vision and carry it to success. And listen to this. Your staff are already intellectuals. At least they were. At university, everyone reads, and learns, and is a servant to their subject. Everyone who became a teacher of a subject did so because it interested them. Now after 5, 10, 20 years of graded lesson observations, poundland pedagogy and pointless pyramids, lots of those intellectuals will have buried that passion, because it’s very painful to see your beautiful subject pushed around and corrupted by faulty ideas like Blooms taxonomy and Kagan structures – but that love is still there. I promise you. Every one of your teachers has a tiny flame burning in them. You have to feed the flames! How do we grow intellectuals? Well of course it’s very simple. We read. You have to get your staff reading. Books, blogs, Twitter – switch them on and watch them take off. It’s the most rewarding thing to see in a staff. At my school we’ve got a staff CPD library, a staff research blog that include directories to blogs on subject areas among other things, and we’ve got a school research Twitter account. We’ve made videos for how to join Twitter and how to go blog-hopping. And one of the things I want to look at doing as we move forward is to give staff time to read. CPD – directed time – here are some subject-specific blogs – off you go. I should add, there are a couple of other things you need to do. You need to remove or change any policies that are anti-intellectual. There is often a tension here because leaders want accountability, consistency and figures for reports, and the policies that deliver these are often anti-intellectual. Let me give you an example. Graded lesson observations are very useful for a lot of leadership type things. They give you numbers so you can track all staff and create reports for governors, to show that progress is being made. They allow you to target your support to staff. But they are anti-intellectual because they have been comprehensively proven to be utterly unreliable (Prof Rob Coe, University of Durham) and what’s more you inevitably have non-specialists issuing judgements. There is nothing more disappointing for an intellectual subject specialist than to be given generic feedback that their lesson wasn’t good enough, by someone without the subject knowledge to tell you how to make it better. Flightpaths is another one – no intellectual with an understanding of statistics will tolerate being told that a student “should be on a grade 3 by the end of Year 8”. Underlining titles with a ruler. You need to be asking yourself, if the cleverest scientist/historian/mathematician in the world decided to become a teacher, and they learned all about teaching, the cognitive load theory, all the science and the techniques, behaviour management and everything – would they think this was good use of their time? Now I’m not saying that teachers should dictate policy and I get the challenges leaders face, I really do – but we have to critically examine our policies and ask if they are anti-intellectual. You need an intellectual workforce and you need to model that in your leadership, wherever you can.

Thirdly: This is the most important project you’ll ever lead and you need to treat it as such. It’s terrifying, how big a job it is to reform your curriculum, and your culture, towards powerful knowledge, but once you know about Powerful Knowledge you feel like don’t really have a choice I’ve found! At my school we’ve got the deputy head and myself leading the project, we’ve got a working group, we’ve started with a vision, we’ve made links with subject specialists in other schools to keep us outward-looking, we’ve analysed the risks and planned out a timeline, we’ve recognised the scale of the task and that however much we want to, we can’t do it all at once so we’re just starting with Year 7, we’ve agreed to use booklets like I described before to make sure we standardise the quality that every child gets – these are all the standard project-management things but I just think it’s important to highlight that you have to be disciplined about them, it’s easy to get caught up in kind of heady idealism but we can’t let that happen, we have to run a, not a military campaign but it needs to be tight because this is really big and it’s really important.  

CPD – Staff Culture

Blog by Joe Kirby:

Over the last ten years, teachers and school leaders have led on creating a golden age of professional learning.

If knowledge is treasure, in the era of the world wide web, wiki-sites, webinars, social media networks, smartphones, tablets, podcasts and ear-pods, we have greater, faster access to the accumulated and fast-evolving knowledge of humankind, in our pockets and at our fingertips, than ever before in human history. 

A range of facts and stats suggests that we are embarking on a golden epoch of CPD in teaching.

There have been more than 40 teacher-led ResearchEd conferences since 2013, many for free.

There are some 40 teacher-led Research Schools disseminating research, largely for free. 

Multi-academy trusts are sharing 100s of CPD videosbook club videos and video lessons for free online.

Some 8,000 teachers a day are answering Teacher Tapp’s call to ask, share and learn together – for free. 

Some 10,000 lessons have been filmed, collated and shared by teachers for free by Oak National Academy – for free.

There are now 150,000 National Professional Qualifications provided for teachers and school leaders over the next three years – for free.

But we are also living in an age of overload, a data deluge, a content tsunami, killer infoglut, seduced by the soft power of invidious weapons of mass distraction, with limitless on-demand entertainment tempting us to binge.

Time is short; options are many. How can we work out what to invest our time into?

Find the treasure troves. 

In this series, I’ll try to sketch three treasure maps of where to unearth some of the smallest but most precious hidden gems. We’re looking for CPD that is free, fast, focused and flexible. It should cost nothing (so no paid courses), not take too much time (not even full books!), and be accessible to teachers anywhere on the planet (so no location-based events).

Three treasure maps.

Treasure Troves to build your staff culture expertise, first.

Treasure Troves to build your student culture expertise, next.

Treasure Troves to build your curriculum expertise, last.

Let’s start with some of the greatest hits and playlists from the brightest spots and brightest sparks in education on staff culture.


Ten Treasure Troves to build your staff culture expertise

1. Putting staff first and the Mind the Gap playlist – Emma Turner, Jonny Uttley, John Tomsett, Tom Sherrington

2. Developing expertise as school leaders – Ambition Institute, Jen Barker & Tom Rees

3. Thinking & Collaboration – ResearchEd home playlist of 30+ videos – Cat ScuttClaire Stoneman, Helena MoorePhillipa Cordingley & Hélène Galdine-O’Shea

4. Culture handbooks – Nick Hart

5. Healthy schools – Dixons Open Source playlist – Luke Sparkes & Jenny Thompson

6. School leadership & CPD: 40 podcasts & webinar bank (& 100 others!) – Kathryn Morgan

7. School Improvement playlist – 32 video session playlist from the Greenshaw National INSET day, led on by Joe and Izzy Ambrose

8. Coaching book summaries – 7 book reviews in a collection of 40+. Pocket Wisdom by Sam Crome

9. Teacher-led research posters – 30+ beautifully designed posters in an amazing wider collection of quotes, diagrams, sketchnotes, illustrations and organisers and more by Oliver Caviglioli 

10. Talent Architects: schools as great places to work – the latest in a great series of white papers by Leora Cruddas & Steve Rollett at the Confederation of School Trusts


Last of all, just as a small gem to add those ten treasure chests, I’ll reshare the 12 top, free articles I collated on staff culture within a wider collection of 24 blogspots of research, 24 blogspots on curriculum and 12 on student culture. These include writing by top edu-bloggers Kat Howard, Jo Facer, Carl Hendrik, Greg Ashman, Louis Everett, Harry Fletcher Wood, Matthew Evans and Claire Stoneman.

All in all, it’s a moment for us as teachers and school leaders to celebrate the golden age of CPD we are creating together.

CPD – Curriculum

Joe Kirby blog:

Teachers and school leaders are trailblazing a golden age of professional learning.

150,000 *now freeNational Professional Qualifications over the next 3 years with a codified body of knowledge and evidence as a *golden thread* journey of ITT, ECT, middle leadership, senior leadership, headship and executive headship.

50,000 Early Careers Teachers training on teacher-selected core contentwith mentoring, focused on behaviour, instruction and their subject.

10,000 Oak Academy lessons filmed and curriculum sequences drafted and shared for free.

1000s of podcasts and blogposts online, and more and more by teachers, for free.

100s of Greenshaw CPD videos, book club videos and video lessons, all for free online.

20+ subject curriculum research reviews webinars, collated for free.

But time is limited. How can we work out what’s best?

Find the treasure troves. 

In this series, I’m sketching treasure maps of where to unearth some of the smallest but most precious hidden gems. We’re looking for CPD that is free, fast and flexible. It should cost nothing (so no paid courses), not take too much time (so no full books), and be accessible anywhere on the planet (so no location-based events).

Treasure Troves to build your staff culture expertise, first.

Treasure Troves to build your student culture expertise, next.

Treasure Troves to build your curriculum expertise, in this blogpost.

Let’s continue with curriculum.

Treasure Troves of hidden gems to build your curriculum expertise

  1. Pedagogy is overratedteaching and learning is dead – Stuart Lock, Adam Boxer
  2. Curriculum Coherence – Jasper Greene; Cambridge Assessment
  3. Curriculum leadershipseries – Jonathan Mountstevens
  4. Subject leaderserieswhat leaders need to know about curriculum – Nick Hart
  5. Curriculum bookletcurriculum series and residue knowledge – Joshua Vallance
  6. Curriculum don’ts and the Curriculum One-Stop-Shop – Adam Boxer
  7. Myth-busting and over-documentation – Heather Fearn
  8. Four Curriculum Warnings – curriculum thinking series – Claire Stoneman
  9. Curriculum progression – Subject leadership Michael Fordham
  10. Curriculum knowledgeDon’t change the subject! Supporting subject leadersGenericism’s childrenSenior curriculum leadership – Christine Counsell
  11. Curriculum as narrativeCurriculum as boxset– Robbie Burns; Neil Almond
  12. 10 principles of curriculum design3 principles – Matea Marcinko, Ambition
  13. How much of the Curriculum should be insisted on? – Ben Newmark
  14. Defining terms – John Tomsett
  15. Curriculum Links: Principles – Adam Robbins, Cogscisci
  16. Assessing Curriculum Intent – Mr Morgs
  17. Curriculum Directory – the curriculum will not be photocopied – Ruth Ashbee
  18. Thinking about curriculum collection – Shaun Allison
  19. Five curriculum threads – Andy Tharby, Mary Myatt
  20. Curriculum questions across subjects – Tom Sherrington
  21. Seven curriculum distinctions for subject leaders; 3 best arguments against a knowledge-rich curriculum – John Hutchinson for ResearchEd home
  22. Curriculum: the challenges of change – Tom Boulter
  23. Curriculum Outliers – Sarah Jones
  24. Booklets – Amy Coombe, Ruth Ashbee, Kat Howard, Adam Boxer, Adam Robbins, Jo Facer, Ben Newmark

Lastly, in a single sentence, I’ve summarised 24 top, free articles on curriculum here

All this has got me wondering – is it worth expanding this series to include a collection on assessment, and a cognitive science collection? 

It may well be the best time in all of human history to learn about the curriculum, with free, fast, flexible, focused, teacher-led CPD at our fingertips anywhere we go.

Assessment CPD

Another great blog by Joe Kirby:

School leaders and teachers are strapped for time. 

What is the best free, fast, flexible CPD out there on assessment?

What can we read that has the highest impact in the least time?

There are no silver bullets, but here are ten or so golden needles I’ve found in the last 10 years I’ve spent looking through the online haystack of education writing. 

Probably a fool’s errand, but I’m going to try anyway.

It’s fourth in a foolhardy series of collections of treasure troves on staff culture, student culture, and curriculum.

Thirteen golden needles for a 1-hour assessment treasure trove 

1.Connecting curriculum and assessmentbyStuart Kime (3-minute read)

Improving our use of assessment means deepening our understanding of the curriculum.


2. The four pillars of assessmentby Evidence Based Education (7-minute read)

We can’t develop our assessment practice without a strong base of knowledge of the key research around assessment.


3. Bad ideas about assessment lead to workload problems (3-minute read) 

Assessment alternatives: questions & pupil work (3-minute reads) by Daisy Christodolou 

If we have a shallow understanding of an assessment system’s flaws, it’s harder to see the deeper reasons why it isn’t working.


4. The level illusion by James Pembroke (4-minute read) and the madness of flightpaths by David Didau (4-minute read)

Predicting students’ progress is a mug’s game. 

[Note: Why are level-based systems so bad? In short, they are illusions. In this research study, pupils given level 2 in reading assessments had reading ages ranging from 5 to 10 years.]


5.  Banning GCSE grades before Year 11 by Matthew Benyohai (6-minute read)

You cannot use a GCSE grade to describe the attainment of someone who hasn’t studied the whole course.


6. Poor attainment data often comes too late! by Becky Allen (6-minute read)

Seek leading not lagged indicators.


7. Giving our data a haircutby Matthew Evans (11-minute read)

To collect data requires a clear rationale, clear resulting action and beneficial impact that exceeds the cost of collection. 


8. Decoupling summative and formative assessment by Michael Fordham (4-minute read)

To know whether pupils have learnt what is on the curriculum, we need a mix of assessment tools: some for determining whether factual knowledge has been learned; some for spotting misconceptions; some for seeing whether knowledge is sufficiently well connected. 


9. Standardised assessment in reading(3-minute) 

Inferences drawn from standardised tests contain decades’ worth of standardisation, so they are more likely to be reliable; they also bring us shared meaning over time in the form of a reading age.


10.Summative writing assessment with comparative judgmentandwriting ages(3-minute reads) 

Marking writing reliably is hard and has high margins of error; comparative judgment reduces margin of error a lot and brings us clear shared meaning over time in the form of a writing age.

Voila! A free, 60-minute starter-pack to help get up to speed with some of the world’s best current thinking on assessment in schools.


17 more free articles for a further crash course on assessment

In 2013, I wrote a 9-part series on assessment that I’ll share below as a second round, an extra 60-minute crash course in assessment thinking for school leaders.

1. What can we learn from AfL? (3 mins) (a shorter, better read is Daisy on AfL)

2. How is assessment shackling schools? (3 mins)

3. How could assessment unshackle schools? Subject-specific progression. (3 mins)

4. Life after levels: where SLT fear to tread (3 mins) (c.f. Daisy on Life after levels, 5 years on)

5. Life after levels: who’ll create a mastery assessment system? (3 mins) (Mark McCourt)

6. Marking is a hornet (2 mins)

7. Three Assessment Mistakes (3 mins)

8. Why MCQs (2 mins) (Daisy on MCQsdistractorsresearch)

9. How to design MCQs (2 mins)


Four core insights

Lastly, here are four main insights I’ve learned from 10 years of studying assessment research.

1. All assessments are just tiny samples of a much broader curriculum and much, much wider subject domain. 

2. All assessment scores are just proxies (stand-ins for what’s really been understood and remembered in pupils’ minds) and just one-off snapshots in a single moment in time.

3. Proxies, samples, exams, assessments and data have pitfalls and washback: we might overinterpret them, put too much weight on them, distort our teaching by drilling to the test, contort our curriculum to cram for a high-stakes exam, crowd out broader subject knowledge and underdevelop our pupils’ schema. 

4. All assessments have limitations, and knowing those limitations (such as almost-inevitably non-standardised conditions) helps prevent us falling into traps of illusory thinking. 


My hope in investing the time it took to create this collection was that this two-hours-worth of carefully curated, freely available articles becomes not just another reading list, but a starting point for curating a coherently sequenced assessment CPD curriculum. 

The dream is to consolidate our knowledge of the best assessment research and expertise available to teachers and school leaders, and to consider which research questions we’d most like to explore as a profession.

Commonly Confused Academic Vocabulary

Commonly Confused Academic Vocabularyby Alex Quigley

It is vital for our pupils to possess a wealth of academic vocabulary if they are to succeed in school. For most of my teaching career, this issue was tacit and flew beneath my radar. Vocabulary issues were often hidden in plain sight. In the last few years, however, developing academic vocabulary has become talked about much more (given countless teachers have related the issues of their pupils). It is now broadly accepted that breadth and depth of vocabulary knowledge is needed to make the academic language of school better understood. It is a complex combination of knowing lots of words, along with their many layers of meaning, as well as how words relate to one another, such as their families, roots, and more. Given most academic words are complex and polysemous (that is to say, they have more than one meaning) just sharing word lists with pupil-friendly definitions is typically inadequate. ‘Thesaurus syndrome’ can ensue, as pupils fill their writing with seemingly-superior synonyms, but end up with confused sentences.Limited word knowledge is exposed in the classroom when polysemous vocabulary confuses familiar everyday meanings with specialist academic word meanings. One such example is ‘cracking‘ in science. I use ‘cracking’ in my everyday speech: ‘it was a cracking match’ or ‘what a cracking dinner’.  However, if you are studying GCSE chemistry, you need to know that ‘cracking’ is a term for breaking large hydrocarbon molecules into simpler molecules. The process of ‘cracking’ in scienceThe mere familiarity of many polysemous words means that misconceptions can develop easily in the minds of pupils. They can self-report confidence in their vocabulary knowledge, but on closer inspection it proves misplaced. Not only that, it is hard to select the right meaning when pupils are searching through a dictionary for answers.We should consider: what words in each subject discipline are most prone to such misunderstanding? Here are 10 examples of commonly confused academic vocabulary:Factor. In maths, factor means a number or algebraic expression that divides another number or expression easily (with no remainder) e.g. 2 & 4 are factors of 8. In history, factor is most likely linked to causal arguments. In our wider culture, an X-factor still holds sway. Interception. In geography, interception describes precipitation that does not reach the soil (it is intercepted by leaves etc.). Whereas in PE, and in our wider culture, we commonly associated an interception with a pass being seized by the opposition.Force. In science, force has a precise meaning to describe the push or pull of an object that causes it to change velocity. In history, force may commonly describe an army battalion or similar. Whereas, in our wider culture, you may quickly get mixed in Star Wars!Bleeding. In art and textiles, bleeding is a specialist technique describing the loss of dye from a coloured textile in contact with a liquid. Everywhere else bleeding stems from a wound and similar. Moment. In physics, a moment describes the turning effect of a force. Everywhere else, it is to do with a moment in time and nothing to do with gears and levers.Culture. In biology, it describes the propagation of microorganisms. In sociology, and in our wider culture, it describes the language, beliefs, values, and more, held by members of a social group.Attrition. In geography, this describes the erosion process – whereat rocks gradually wear away at one another. In history, and more commonly, attrition is a broader reduction in strength, such as a loss of staff in schools, or the saying ‘war of attrition’.Abstract. In art and design, abstract is quite specific in describing art the intentionally does not attempt to represent external reality. In describes a branch of algebra in maths, but most commonly, it describes something that exists as an idea and not a concrete reality. Tone. In art and design, tone describes the relative lightness or darkness of a colour. In English or drama, it means the general character of writing, or the quality of a voice – its pitch and quality. Depression. In geography, depression has a specific meaning a sunken landform or subsidence, such as a river valley. In history, we may leap first to the Great Depression. In everyday life, depression more broadly describes feelings of dejection (often clinical). To avoid confusion and potential misconceptions, being explicit about the specialist language of our subjects is essential (it is the stuff of ‘disciplinary literacy’). The differences can prove subtle. Explicit vocabulary instruction can of course help, as well as simply tackling word meanings, and layers of meaning, head on in explanations and discussion. Akin to studying the earth in geography (or chemistry), we should pay attention to layers of meaning, digging into words, making rich connections, and thereby discovering their rich histories, parts and meanings. 

Cognitive Science crash course

A wonderful collection of resources from Joe Kirby:

Time is short in schools. 

Fast, free CPD is key. 

Here’s a free, 2-hour self-study crash course to help teachers, school leaders, teaching assistants and support staff to grasp the science of learning. 

  1. Memory and overloadPeps McCrae 1 min
  2. How cognitive load theory changed my teachingZach Groshell 2 mins
  3. What can we learn from cognitive science?3 mins
  4. Three applications of cognitive science4 mins
  5. Why don’t students remember what they’ve learned?5 mins
  6. Introduction to cognitive scienceRuth Ashbee 6 mins
  7. Teaching with memory in mindJemma Sherwood 2 mins
  8. How to learn betterAdam Boxer 2 mins
  9. What can science tell us about how students learn best?3 mins
  10. How can we improve the quality of our teaching1 min
  11. One scientific insight for curriculum design4 mins
  12. Cognitive science and visible learning4 mins
  13. Why is knowledge important?Dan Willingham 8 minutes
  14. Worked examples James Crane 3 minutes
  15. The practice gap David Thomas 1 min
  16. The power of practiceDavid Thomas 1 min
  17. The quantity of practiceDavid Thomas 1 min
  18. Practice drills2 mins
  19. OverlearningDan Willingham 1 min
  20. Why people love and remember storiesDan Willingham 6 mins
  21. Mnemonics: making the forgettable memorable4 mins
  22. An introduction to the science of learning Nick Rose 56-minute video

Questions worth trying to explain

  1. How do working memory and long-term memory work together in learning? (revisit)
  2. How does knowledge help learning? (revisit)
  3. How do examples help learning? (revisit)
  4. How does practice help learning? (revisit)

EEF Research & Evidence Library of Guidance Report References

Staffordshire Research School have collated ALL the EEF guidance reports into one padlet – amazing work. Over the last few weeks they have invested a fair few hours to source direct links to as many pieces of evidence and research referenced in the EEF’s Guidance Reports, with the hope that it will save school leaders and teachers 1000’s of hours replicating the searches, as some are pretty hard to track down!! In the Padlet link you will find:

  • 15 EEF Guidance Reports
  • Over 760 direct links to the research sources
  • The overwhelming majority of the links we have sourced are freely accessible (but not all unfortunately – and really should be to educators, in our opinion!)
  • Where possible we have located and provided links to PDFs so they can be directly accessed, saved and stored (or we have saved them and uploaded them already for you)

Be patient – it’s a very large Padlet page so takes a short while to load all links and documents – stick with it, it does work! The internet evolves rapidly too, so if you find any links are broken, please let us know so we can keep this as up to date and as useful as possible. you can email here.

In return, all we ask is that you follow us on twitter @JTStaffsRSch tweet/retweet it, tag us in and spread the word so that as many people can benefit as possible and we all save each other as much time as we can. Feel free to share it, use it and signpost it in training and with colleagues.

Here’s the link, we hope you find it useful –…

Nathan Morland – Research School Director

Carly Kelly – Research School Co-ordinator

Thoughts on Yr11 – the countdown…

57 Day Plan

Here at Durrington our Y11 students have sat their mocks and had their results and in a number of subjects, teachers have already finished teaching the content of the course.  It’s parents evening tonight and a common topic of discussion will be what the students need to do in between now and when the exams start to maximise their performance.  Curriculum leaders and teachers have been discussing the same thing – how can teachers optimise the use of the next 57 school days (starting on Monday) before the GCSE exams start?  The most effective teachers seem to have a degree of commonality between how they plan to approach the next 57 days with their classes, which we have tried to formulate into a ‘to-do’ list in this blog.

  • Work out how many lessons you have left within these 57 days.  You then know what you are working with.
  • Interrogate the mock papers for the classes you taught.  Which questions and topics  did they perform poorly on?
  • Go further than this though.  It’s not good enough just to identify the topics they under-performed in, as topics are very broad.  You need to know which specific parts of the topic they under-performed in and why?  For example, in physics, they may have under-performed in momentum.  However, there are a number of reasons why they might have lost marks e.g. they couldn’t recall the equation p=m x v; they didn’t know that momentum is conserved, so it’s the same before and after a collision or explosion; they couldn’t remember the units kg m/s.  This is important – you have to know where the specific knowledge gaps are, in order to address it through your teaching.
  • Know your students.  Who under-performed and why?  Have a plan about how you are going to support them e.g. one to one modelling and scaffolding; checking they are OK when they start a task; asking them more challenging questions to really stretch their thinking; boost their confidence when they successfully tackle a question they have previously struggled with.
  • Look at moderator reports and the exam board analysis of students in your centre compared to national results – in the subject you taught.  Whilst this was a different cohort, it might still give you an indication of potential areas to focus on.
  • You now know the lessons you have left and the content that you should cover, so use this to produce a plan.  Lesson by lesson, what are you going to cover?  This will ensure that you cover all the potential problem areas in the run up to the exams.  Leave yourself some flexibility within this plan though, as you will probably need to review it.
  • Producing a plan like this will reduce your anxiety.  You won’t have to worry that you might miss something, or that you won’t fit it all in as you’ve already done all the planning.
  • Next – plan carefully what you are going to do in those lessons?  Retrieval of knowledge will be key and will help boost the confidence of students.  So start with some retrieval questions of the main topics.  Build this up over the weeks, so they have an every growing list of cumulative questions to revise from independently
  • Think about how you are going to model to students how to choose, use and evaluate  the best strategy to tackle an exam question (metacognition).   The EEF metacognition guidance report provides a great 7 step approach to help you model this with them:

  • A number of curriculum areas have simplifed this down to an ‘I, we, you‘ approach, which lends itself perfectly to modelling answering exam questions.  The teacher does one on their own, explaining and discussing each of the steps on the way. The teacher and the class then work through a similar question together. Finally, students work through another similar question on their own.
  • Make sure they have worked examples in their books (after the ‘I’ stage, above), as that will reduce the cognitive load when it comes to tackling similar questions on their own.
  • Give them lots of opportunities to answer really hard exam questions – purposeful practice.  This article in The Guardian talks about a Cardiff maths teacher whose whole class achieved an A* at GCSE.  A colleague describes the teacher:

“We call him the maths whisperer. He instils the belief that they have practised the hardest maths that they have to ever face, so why be scared of an exam? It’s the belief that they absolutely can do it, and the children think it’s magic.”

  • Use this in-class exam question practice formatively.  Where are they going wrong?  Is it identifying topics that you need to re-teach? If so, re-teach them.
  • Use homework wisely – plan carefully the exam questions they can do at home to link it to what you have been doing in lessons, but also include topics that you haven’t covered recently, as an opportunity for some spaced practice.   This should also be used as an opportunity for whole-class feedback – how did they do? What common mistakes were made? How can they avoid these mistakes?
  • Make it easy for parents to support what you are doing at home.  We have put copies of knowledge organisers from all subjects on our VLE for parents to download and use for quizzing.  We have also recorded some YouTube videos for parents, explaining how they can support with flashcards and knowledge organisers.
  • Review your seating plan this is a great time to refocus a class with a new seating plan and think about who might benefit who, through sitting together?
  • And finally – review your plan.  As time goes on, you will almost certainly discover that you need to spend more time on X than Y.  Be responsive.

Shaun Allison