What is a knowledge-rich curriculum? Principle and Practice.

Tom Sherrington blog – I have found recent discussions and debates about the concept of a ‘knowledge-rich curriculum’  – or knowledge-led; knowledge-based – fascinating.   Some of this has been explored brilliantly in various blogs.  Here is a selection:

There are also numerous blogs from Michael Fordham (Knowledge and curriculum – Clio et cetera), Clare Sealy (Memory not memories – teaching for long term learning – primarytimerydotcom) or Christine Counsell: the dignity of the thing

Along with plenty of others, I initially struggled to get my ahead around this idea.  As a science teacher I’ve always felt my curriculum was packed with knowledge and, without question, I’ve seen numerous cohorts sit lots of GCSE exams year after year, each requiring significant knowledge.   However, having engaged in the debate, read Martin Robinson’s Trivium 21c and Dan Willingham’s work, I’m increasingly convinced that a knowledge-rich/focused/led/based curriculum is an important concept that we ought to embrace.

Based on my work with lots of schools in varying circumstances over the last few years, I would say that not only is this approach often different to the default practice, it offers a secure route to the rising standards that we’re continually seeking.

What is a knowledge-rich curriculum in principle?

Based on various ideas pulled from the blogs and books cited above, I would suggest there are four components:

Knowledge provides a driving, underpinning philosophy:  The grammar of each subject is given high status; the specifics of what we want students to learn matter and the traditions of subject disciplines are respected.  Skills and understanding are seen as forms of knowledge and it is understood that there are no real generic skills that can be taught outside of specific knowledge domains.  Acquiring powerful knowledge is seen as an end itself; there is a belief that we are all empowered through knowing things and that this cannot be left to chance.  There is also a sense that the creative, ’rounded and grounded’ citizens we all want to develop – with a host of strong character traits –  will emerge through being immersed in a knowledge-rich curriculum.

The knowledge content is specified in detail: Units of work are supported by statements that detail the knowledge to be learned – something that can be written down.  We do not merely want to ‘do the Romans’; we want children to gain some specified knowledge of the Romans as well as a broad overview.  We want children to know specific things about plants and about The Amazon Rainforest, WWII, Romeo and Juliet and Climate Change.  We want children to have more than a general sense of things through vaguely remembered  knowledge encounters; in addition to a range of experiences from which important tacit knowledge is gained, we want them to amass a specific body of declarative and procedural knowledge that is planned.   This runs through every phase of school: units of work are not defined by headings but by details: eg beyond ‘environmental impact of fossil fuels’, the specific impacts are detailed; beyond ‘changes to transport in Victorian Britain’, specific changes are listed.

Knowledge is taught to be remembered, not merely encountered: A good knowledge-rich curriculum embraces learning from cognitive science about memory, forgetting and the power of retrieval practice.  Our curriculum is not simply a set of encounters from which children form ad hoc memories; it is designed to be remembered in detail; to be stored in our students’ long-term memories so that they can later build on it forming ever wider and deeper schema.  This requires approaches to curriculum planning and delivery that build in spaced retrieval practice, formative low-stakes testing and plenty of repeated practice for automaticity and fluency.

Knowledge is sequenced and mapped deliberately and coherently: Beyond the knowledge specified for each unit, a knowledge-rich curriculum is planned vertically and horizontally giving thought to the optimum knowledge sequence for building secure schema – a kinetic model for materials; a timeline for historical events; a sense of the canon in literature; a sense of place; a framework for understanding cultural diversity and human development and evolution.  Attention is also given to known misconceptions and there is an understanding of the instructional tools needed to move students from novice to expert in various subject domains.


What is a knowledge-rich curriculum in practice?

The best way to attack this is through some examples:

Exhibit A: The Romans 

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If you imagine some Year 8s looking back to their time in Year 4, when they ‘did the Romans’, what would we want them to remember?  They might remember their trip to the ruins or the museum, the video of the gladiators and something about togas and what the soldiers looked like.  They might have a general sense that Romans had an empire and that they were around a long time ago.  In a knowledge-rich curriculum they would remember all of this but would also be expected to know the terms empire, emperor, centurion, amphitheatre, aqueduct.  They would know who Julius Caesar was; they would know a set of dates, placing the Romans in time in relation to Jesus and 1066 and be able to identify the location of key Roman sites in the UK and Europe.

All of the teaching could be supported by giving students a knowledge organiser with all the key facts on it from which various quizzes and tests are derived to support their retrieval practice.  This would be part of a long-term plan that ensured students returned to Roman history beyond Year 4; there would be an expectation that their knowledge would be built on, not left behind.

Exhibit B: Parliament Hill Science 

At this Camden school, the science department has developed a superb set of resources to support students with learning.  This is linked to their FACE It approach described in this post: FACE It. A formula for learning.   The idea is that students need to master the recall of basic science facts and concepts on the road to deep understanding and the ability to apply knowledge to problem solving.   They are provided with excellent study guides; more detailed than a knowledge organiser but stripped down from what might be in a text-book. Here’s a sample from the GCSE unit on genetics and selection.

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Significantly, students are shown the quizzes that will be used to test them on their knowledge. They are embedded in the books.  They are seen in advance so that students can learn the form in which knowledge is sometimes expressed.  It guides their learning. Students are asked to learn the material after being taught it and then take the quizzes without any study aids.  The aim is that all students get all the questions right.  That’s the point.  Their theory is that, if students can’t get the simple factual recall questions right, they have no chance of then getting the ‘application to new contexts’ questions right.

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This embedded quizzing teachers lower attaining students to build confidence, gaining important study skills and has paid dividends.  It also helps a team of teachers to focus their energies and to plan collaboratively.  It’s a Godsend for any new or non-specialist teachers too.

Exhibit C:  Trial by Ordeal

If you were teaching the GCSE History theme study on Crime and Punishment, you might show this BBC Bitesize video: https://www.bbc.com/education/clips/zrtk2hv.  It’s a great colourful story full of information, examples, facts, concepts, gory details.  You could watch it and have a wonderful engaging discussion during a lesson.  But…. some days and weeks later, what would students remember?  If you hoped students would recall as much as possible simply through absorbing information or by making their own notes, you’re going to get a wide range of responses – and for certain, the weakest students will have the worst notes and, in all likelihood, the lowest level of recall.  It’s not enough.

In a knowledge-rich approach, we don’t leave this to chance.  We spell it all out. Alongside watching the video and having the discussion, we make the note-making absolutely explicit.  These are the key facts; this what everyone must know; this is what you must all remember.  Not only this, but at least all of this:

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You might choose to train students to produce their own structured notes in a quizzable format or you might just give them the notes and focus on the retrieval practice and application.  But what you won’t do is all students to scrabble around dredging memories for half-remembered titbits of facts in the hope that they have a coherent picture of the idea of trial by ordeal.  You control it; you are precise about it.

Exhibit D:  Sequenced knowledge of Motors. 

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This is my favourite bit of teaching physics – one of them at least.  If I teach this through a  knowledge-rich approach I want to make sure that the knowledge builds securely.  Firstly, say in Year 8, through demos and practicals, I want students to build their tacit knowledge of the key phenomena:  magnetism, magnetic fields, attraction and repulsion, the idea of ‘strength’ of a magnet;  forces; current in circuits – each with direction and magnitude; the idea that phenomena interact. All of this can be highly qualitative – simply focusing on changes of direction and the simple awe and wonder thing that motors work at all in our universe. I will also secure recall and understanding of some key terminology.

Later, as part of a spiral curriculum, avoiding cognitive overload and building on prior knowledge, I need students to understand and use F = BIL and Fleming’s left hand rule.  I need them to know the terms, that magnetic flux density more or less means ‘strength’, has a symbol B and units Teslas.  I need them to learn the equation by heart and practise using it and manipulating it.  All of that needs focus – so that they think about the equation away from the buzzy distraction of a sparking, whizzing motor.  I build the sequence carefully, deliberately with a focus on practice and recall and schema-building.

Is this new? Well, yes I think it is to many teachers and in many schools –  especially once the cogscience combines with the idea of subject grammar.  It’s way beyond some reductive idea of rote learning and regurgitating facts for no purpose.   It’s about ensuring students always have a secure knowledge platform allowing them to reach the next level.  But it’s not too important (is it?) whether we did this before… some of us will; some won’t and that will depend on context, subject, phase…   The point is that we do it now.  It’s actually rather exciting….


Since posting this, Debra Kidd has extended/deepened the ideas here in this superb post. Knowledge is just the start….    https://debrakidd.wordpress.com/2018/06/11/a-rich-curriculum/.   Read together, I think we’ve nailed it!

Another Update

This post by Michael Fordham makes perfect sense to me:  https://clioetcetera.com/2018/06/12/is-it-more-important-to-understand-than-to-know/ Understanding is really about what we know… the knowledge.  Now we’ve nailed it.

Learning Scientists – take aways

Lightbulb Moments with The Learning Scientists

This weekend, we at Advantage Schools ran our first educational conference.  It was a collaborative piece of work, with Bedford School providing the venue, and the amazing presenters being The Learning Scientists: Megan Sumeracki, PhD; Cindy Nebel, PhD; Carolina Kuepper-Tetzel, PhD; and Althea Need Kaminske, PhD.  Over two hundred teachers joined us for two days of fascinating learning about the insights of cognitive science, and how these can help our students to remember what they have studied more successfully.


I had some familiarity with most of the strategies discussed. A few years ago, I had read about the benefits of retrieval practice, spacing and interleaving and had worked to incorporate them into my planning (at least, I thought I had).  As part of induction at Bedford Free School, all staff attend a series of student assemblies run by the Head of History (@JamesRawlins90), in which he talks through the learning strategies and how students can use them best to study. I have also, more recently, become more interested in dual coding, and wanted to leave the conference with some ideas as to how I could develop my use of this.

Despite familiarity with the content I was absolutely fascinated by all The Learning Scientists had to say, and as I listened I had a few lightbulb moments. I use this term to refer to those moments in the classroom when students just seem to get something. They move beyond surface level understanding of something to make a deeper connection or develop an idea. I love these moments and there are lots of metaphors for it – the penny dropping, the scales falling away – and I think it is something all teacher readers will have witnessed. But it was great to feel like a student again and have a few lightbulb moments of my own!

Throughout the course of the two days The Learning Scientists warned against two things: one, don’t feel you have to make big changes or change everything. Rather, make little tweaks. Doing something is better than nothing. Two, don’t see the strategies as a tick-list that will lead to A Good Lesson. My view is, we should use the strategies to overcome learning problems rather than for the sake of it: students aren’t remembering content? Let’s try some retrieval practice. Students are struggling with an abstract concept? Let’s give them some concrete examples.

So here is a summary of my lightbulb moments and the tweaks I think I am going to make in my English lessons as a result over the coming days, weeks and months. These will probably only be useful if you have some familiarity with the concepts already, as I won’t be re-explaining the concept in detail. If this is all new to you, I would suggest heading over to The Learning Scientists website (http://www.learningscientists.org/) where there is plenty of information to get you started. You may also find this blog interesting, written by another delegate at the conference who was coming to the ideas with fresh eyes: https://adastrapermundum.wordpress.com/2019/01/12/discovering-some-cognitive-psychology/.


Lightbulb moment 1: When using spaced practice, don’t use the same materials to re-activate learning.

Humans are really good at recognising things they’ve seen before, but that isn’t the same as remembering them. If I showed you a £5 note, you would recognise it instantly so could easily think “I know this well.” However, if I asked you to draw a £5 note without looking at one I bet you wouldn’t get many details right at all. If you don’t believe me, try it. Or, ask yourself (without looking) what colour each of the letters on the Google logo is. Now consider what will happen if you show students the same information they’ve studied before in the same format – perhaps the same ppt slide or page in a textbook.  The risk is that if we just show students the same materials when we try to “re-activate” the learning, we will create over confidence, a feeling of “I’ve seen this before, I don’t need to pay too much attention here.”

Tweak: When re-activating, provide it in a different form. Ask a question or questions that cover the content and re-teach if they struggle. Perhaps combine with retrieval practice or dual coding?

Lightbulb moment 2: When interleaving, the concepts need to be related

This was a significant one for me, as I had not realised the importance of this and I thought interleaving was just about teaching different topics side by side. By ensuring the concepts are related, students can be asked “How are these similar? How are they different?” leading to deeper learning. On reflection I think this is something that happens fairly naturally in English classrooms, for example if you were reading a text you probably would interleave some writing practice that would draw on related conventions. However, I think the explicit nature of the links could be developed.

Tweak: One tweak for me is a mental one. For a while now I fretted that we should review KS4 English Lit and teach a different text every day, but now I think this was a very simplified understanding of what interleaving is. This would have the benefits of spacing, but not interleaving. I feel more reassured now that we don’t have to rush towards that outcome as I am conscious it would involve a huge amount of planning. However, I do think that after a first reading of texts, we could interleave the deeper study of character and themes.  I’m also wondering if there would be a benefit to interleaving quotation learning with creative writing, for example after analysing quotations asking students to write creatively using some of the key vocabulary from the quotation. By making the link between reading and writing more explicit here, I would hope to encourage students to call on their literature studies more to develop their own writing in language. After interleaving, remember to ask students how the underlying concepts were related!

Lightbulb moment 3: Retrieval practice can be more than just quizzing and re-writing without notes

Tests are great, but there are ways to scaffold retrieval practice and combine with the other techniques.

Tweak: Recall in mind-maps or ask students to produce a drawing to summarise what they remember. Use hints or prompts at first then get them to work towards relying on memory alone.

Lightbulb moment 4: SLOW DOWN if you are using dual coding

Providing information in visual and verbal formats requires the students to switch between the two. Although this may be helpful it will also slow down their ability to process the information. This seems obvious now and is simple to apply. I’m just not sure I had thought about it much.

Lightbulb moment 5: Use elaboration by getting students to generate their own questions

I have asked students to come up with questions before, but I haven’t done it for a while. After listening to the concept underlying this, and how it helps students self-explain content to themselves, I think it is something I want to return to. I am wary of students asking surface level questions, so I asked whether, as a form of scaffolding, it would be helpful to give students an answer and get them to generate the questions that would lead to the given response. In this way I could explore their questions with them and discuss which were the best questions to ask to aid learning. The Learning Scientists suggested this could be a useful strategy and I think it will be simple to put in place.

Lightbulb moment 6: Get students to generate their own text from images

I’ve done this the other way round – asked students to turn a text into an image – but I’m excited at the idea of strengthening memory and utilising retrieval practice by asking students to turn images into text. Maybe I can provide an image of a scene from a play and ask students to write down the stage directions or dialogue. Or an image of a character and ask students to write a character description. There are lots of options here to try out.

The best thing is, I think these tweaks will be easy for me to apply as I go about my usual day to day planning. Interleaving is probably the one that would take most thought at first, but I am confident the others will be straightforward to implement.


There are so many more thoughts than this buzzing around my head, but they have not crystallised yet into ideas and will continue to give me plenty to think about! I am really looking forward to discussing it all with colleagues when I get into our schools next week. I am hugely grateful to The Learning Scientists for their work and to everyone who made the conference happen.

If you were there, or were following from afar, what tweaks would you like to make in your classrooms?

Rosenshine – Whole School Approach

The Rosenshine Papers

A really interesting blog post form Steve Adcock on how they moved towards a whole school approach: Why Rosenshine?

In 2018 we (United Learning) adopted Rosenshine’s principles of instruction as the basis for our approach to teaching and learning across our schools. It’s the first time that we’ve taken a collective position on teaching and learning, rather than leaving this critical issue to each school. Our focus previously was on supporting each school in having an internally coherent and effective T&L strategy. With the adoption of the Rosenshine principles we were attempting to go a step further by ensuring that each school’s approach was anchored in a shared understanding of the characteristics of effective teaching.

We did this for a few reasons. Firstly, we wanted to support schools in challenging approaches to teaching that are not supported by good evidence, such as teaching which is overly driven by the exam specification, teaching that is founded on the belief that pupils learn better by discovering things for themselves, teaching that takes differentiation too far by placing different groups of pupils on different ‘tracks’ in the same lesson, and teaching that is overly focused on securing evidence of progress in each lesson, rather than gradually building a secure long-term understanding of each subject.

As a growing Trust, and a Trust that comprises primary and secondary schools in the state and independent sector, as well as an initial teacher training programme, we could see benefits in building a shared understanding of the characteristics of effective teaching. A trainee teacher could leave their summer institute and arrive at their school in September safe in the knowledge that the philosophy towards teaching and learning would be consistent; a deputy head leading on teaching and learning could share resources with counterparts in our other schools; subject advisors could produce curriculum materials confident that they would be applied in the classroom in similar ways. We would move from each school having an internally coherent approach to teaching and learning, towards a coherent approach across the whole group which would serve as a foundation for great teaching in each school and each subject.

Over time we are using the principles to develop a shared and precise language for the way we talk about teaching and learning. In my experience, the language commonly used to describe teaching and learning is anything but precise. Obvious examples would be phrases such as ‘the lesson lacked a bit of oomph’ or ‘pupils weren’t fully engaged’ or, more positively, the lesson featured ‘awe and wonder’. But even terms that seem more clear such as ‘pace’ and ‘challenge’ can lack the precision required to develop teaching practice. Take ‘pace’ – do we mean that the teacher went through things too slowly or that pupils didn’t work quickly enough, or perhaps the teacher wasn’t clear on timings, or maybe the start of the lesson drifted and time was squeezed for the challenging stuff at the end? That leads us to ‘challenge’ – was the content itself too easy, or was it the task, or are we simply saying that not enough pupils produced work at the standard required?

We chose the Rosenshine principles because they’re sensible, evidence-informed and provide the shared foundation we were seeking rather than a rigid checklist to be applied to every lesson. As an established set of principles we were able to avoid a long process of navel-gazing which would inevitably have been required if we had attempted to write our own. The fact they’ve been around for a while also enabled us to reassure our schools that we would commit to these principles for several years ahead, rather than replace them with a passing fad in twelve months’ time.

We’ve got a long way to go, but we’re seeing some early fruits of our labour.  I write this while returning from an inset day in Shoreham where all teachers from four of our schools started 2019 by gathering together to explore the principles in the context of their own subject. Meanwhile our subject advisors have written case studies on how to apply these principles in their subject. The curriculum resources we are producing contain the modelling, the question prompts and the scaffolds that Rosenshine promotes in his work.

So what might Rosenshine look like in the classroom?

As we’ve worked with schools in exploring Rosenshine’s work we’ve confronted the question of what his principles look like in the classroom. I’m in two minds here as to how usefully Rosenshine presented his research. On the one hand, I’m grateful that his principles are contained in short, concise pamphlets such as this 2012 one and this 2010 one. One of the simplest things we’ve done is simply ask schools to ensure that all teachers read all 9 pages of the 2012 paper.

But I do have a few gripes with the way Rosenshine presented his work. Firstly, the 2012 paper contains a list of 17 principles alongside the main list of 10. Rosenshine explains this decision (the list of 17 provides slightly more detail and overlaps with the list of 10) but given Rosenshine’s knowledge of the limits of working memory and cognitive load, it seems slightly curious to share two separate lists alongside each other.

We can take this overlap as a reminder that the principles do not seek to provide a checklist to be followed in order in every lesson. This becomes clear when we note his sub-heading for point 6 (check for student understanding): “checking for student understanding at each point can help students learn the material with fewer errors” (my emphasis). So – to be clear – we don’t check for understanding between point 5 (guide student practice) and point 7 (obtain a high success rate), we check for understanding throughout the whole process. Tom Sherrington has noted that this becomes clear when we read Rosenshine’s 1986 and 1982 papers which emphasise the importance of checking for understanding.

The 1982 paper also helps us understand Rosenshine’s intentions in proposing the principles:


There’s another gem lurking in his earlier papers that I think gets lost in the latter versions. In his 1986 teaching functions paper Rosenshine writes:

“Three of these functions form the instructional core: demonstration, guided practice, and independent practice. The first step is the demonstration of what is to be learned. This is followed by guided student practice in which the teacher leads the students in practice, provides prompts, checks for understanding, and provides corrections and repetition. When students are firm in their initial learning, the teacher moves them to independent practice where the students work with less guidance. The objective of the independent practice is to provide sufficient practice so that students achieve overlearning (Brophy, 1982) and demonstrate quickness and competence. A simple version of this core is used frequently in the elementary grades when a teacher says: “I’ll say it first, then you’ll say it with me, and then you’ll say it by yourself”.”

This seems like critical guidance, and helps us to understand the intention behind Rosenshine’s principles, which I think we can now summarise as:

  • Prior review
  • Instructional core (I>we>you):
    • Demonstration (explanation and modelling) of new material in small steps
    • Guided practice with prompts and scaffolds
    • Independent practice with monitoring and feedback from teacher
  • Future review

At each of these points – every single one of them – we check the understanding of all pupils by asking lots of questions and providing correction and feedback.

This model – the instructional core sandwiched between prior review and future review, with checking for understanding at each point – captures the essence of Rosenshine’s principles of instruction and provides an answer to that question of what Rosenshine looks like in the classroom.

Rosenshine’s back catalogue also helps us understand his 7th principle ‘Obtain a high success rate’.  In his 1986 Teaching Functions paper he writes: “Although there are no scientific guidelines as to exactly what the percentage of correct answers should be, a reasonable recommendation at the present time (suggested by Brophy, 1980) is an 80% success rate when practicing new material. When reviewing, the success rate should be very high, perhaps 95% and student responses should be rapid, smooth and confident.” So this idea of success rate supports teachers in deciding when to move through the instructional core, particularly when to move from guided practice (when around 80% of student responses are correct) to independent practice (when around 95% of student responses are correct).  This 7th principle seems a bit obvious and not overly helpful in the 2012 pamphlet, but it gains practical use thanks to the 1986 paper.

These principles now serve as a foundation for our support for teaching and learning across our schools. There’s a couple of things about foundations – in the sense of a building’s foundations – that I think are useful here. One is that we don’t tinker with foundations once they’re in place. They’re built to last. The second is that foundations are designed to be built on. We hope that throughout United Learning our teachers will explore these principles and bring them to life in the context of their school, their subject and their pupils. Rosenshine closes his 1982 paper with this very point:

in sum

Exam Technique – practical help for students

This much I know about…how to use research evidence to improve both my teaching and my students’ outcomes

I have been a teacher for 30 years, a Headteacher for 15 years and, at the age of 54, this much I know about how to use research evidence to improve both my teaching and my students’ outcomes.

In this article, I outline the steps I took from being directed to a research paper, using that research paper’s evidence to change my teaching and then how I measured the impact of that change to my teaching upon students’ outcomes. I have told aspects of this story before, but never in one place coherently, from beginning to end.

I have been teaching for over 30 years and for the first 25 I really didn’t know what I was doing; the shocking truth is that I got by on force of character and enthusiasm. It has only been in the last five years – since we became a Research School – that I have understood how to teach in a way that helps students learn effectively.

In February 2015 I was prompted to approach Alex Quigley, our erstwhile Director of Research, when I was faced with the following problem: my students’ AS mock examination results were poor – the most popular grade was a big fat U.

The frustration was that I knew they knew their Economics content. My challenge was to answer the question, How can I train my students’ thinking so that they can apply their knowledge of Economics to solve the contextual problems they face in the terminal examinations?

By then we were familiar with the Sutton Trust-Education Endowment Foundation Learning & Teaching Toolkit which rates developing students’ metacognition & self-regulation as a relatively cheap and highly effective strategy to improve students’ learning. Furthermore, Alex suggested I read a short research paper entitled: “Cognitive Apprenticeship: Teaching the Craft of Reading, Writing, and Mathematics” by Allan Collins, John Brown and Susan Newman”.[i]

The paper was illuminating. It transformed my teaching. The first section explores the characteristics of traditional apprenticeship and how they might be adapted to teach cognitive skills in schools; the second section examines three teaching methods to develop in students the metacognitive skills required for expertise in reading, writing and solving mathematical problems, and the final section outlines a framework for developing and evaluating new pedagogies in schools, based on the traditional apprenticeship model.

The paper identifies that “domain (subject) knowledge…provides insufficient clues for many students about how to actually go about solving problems and carrying out tasks in a domain. Moreover when it is learned in isolation from realistic problem contexts and expert problem-solving practices, domain knowledge tends to remain inert in situations for which it is appropriate, even for successful students”.

In order for my students to use the subject knowledge I knew they possessed, I had to teach them what Collins et al define as “Strategic knowledge: the usually tacit knowledge that underlies an expert’s ability to make use of concepts, facts, and procedures as necessary to solve problems and carry out tasks”.

I was the expert in the room. I knew subconsciously the skills required to apply my subject knowledge to solve an economics problem; the trouble was, I had not consciously taught my students those skills. What I had to do, according to the paper, was “delineate the cognitive and metacognitive processes that heretofore have tacitly comprised expertise”.

I had to find a way to apply “apprenticeship methods to largely cognitive skills”. It required “the externalization of processes that are usually carried out internally”. Ultimately, I had to develop an apprenticeship model of teaching which made my expert thinking visible.

In response to the research paper, here is what I did: in the first lesson after the mocks I completed the same examination paper, not answering the questions but writing on the paper what my brain would have been saying to itself, question by question, should I have attempted the paper. I did this in front of them, live, with what I was thinking/writing projected onto the whiteboard via a visualiser.

What I wrote on the paper I insisted they wrote down verbatim on their own blank copy of the paper, a key feature of this learning experience.

The exercise showed them just how alert my brain is when I am being examined. I was teaching them, apprenticeship-style, how to apply their domain knowledge to a new context when under pressure. I was making my thinking visible.

In the second lesson after the examinations, I surprised them with a new mock paper they hadn’t seen before. They completed the paper. The numerous students who attained a U grade first time round all improved by three or more grades.

The one student who I know for sure improved precisely because of his use of the metacognition and self-regulation intervention I modelled for him was Oliver. He went from getting 24/60 and a grade U in his first paper to getting 51/60 and a grade A in his second paper. Why am I so sure it was the intervention which helped Oliver improve? Well look at how he has made explicit on paper metacognitive processes in his marginal notes. He mimicked the thinking which I modelled.

The important thing to emphasise is that the students made these impressive gains in their examinations without being taught any more Economics A level content. They improved because I taught them the mental processes required to retrieve the knowledge they had learnt from their long term memories and apply that knowledge in an efficient, precise way which answered the examination questions.

I obsess about the golden thread from intervention to students’ outcomes. Skip a year and in the summer of 2016 those same thirteen A2 Economics students surpassed themselves, attaining a grade B on average, which was 0.27 of a grade higher on average than their aspirational target grades. On the A Level Performance Systems (ALPS) the class performance was rated Outstanding.

Oliver seemed to carry those metacognitive skills with him from year 12; with a B grade target, in the final reckoning he attained an A* in Economics and grade Bs in his three other A level subjects.

As Collins et al conclude, “ultimately, it is up to the teacher to identify ways in which cognitive apprenticeship can work in his or her own domain of teaching”. Reading their paper prompted me to design a pedagogic approach which modelled explicitly my expert thinking, to the obvious benefit of my students.

But one thing troubles me: I cannot help but wonder how many more of my students could have benefitted if only I had read “Cognitive Apprenticeship” 25 years earlier.

This term I will be teaching writing from different viewpoints and perspectives to a Year 9 English class; different elements of what I have learnt about developing students’ metacognitive  writing skills from the “Cognitive Apprenticeship” research paper will inform my teaching.


[i] The paper was first published in draft in 1987 as Technical Report No. 403 by the Center for the Study of Reading at the University of Illinois, under the title: “Cognitive Apprenticeship: Teaching the Craft of Reading, Writing, and Mathematics” by Allan Collins, BBN Laboratories, John Seely Brown, Susan Newman and the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center. It is available online at: https://www.ideals.illinois.edu/bitstream/handle/2142/17958/ctrstreadtechrepv01987i00403_opt.pdf?sequence

The final version of the paper was published in the Winter 1991 edition of the American Educator, under the title, “Cognitive Apprenticeship: Making Thinking Visible”, by Allan Collins, John Seely Brown and Ann Holum. It is available online at: http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=