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The generic and the disciplinary: finding a balance

Yesterday, I posted a blog arguing that “teaching and learning” is dead. It generated some really fascinating conversations online, and I wanted to pick up on something a couple of people raised: it may be the case that curriculum comes first, and that it dictates pedagogy. And it may be the case that in the past there have been some fairly questionable outcomes of non-specialists observing specialists. But:

  1. Are there not some things like retrieval practice which we know are generally good ideas which even a non-specialist would be able to identify?
  2. Is there really no value to observing a lesson outside of your subject?

I think these are completely legitimate challenges to my premise, so I wanted to try and express my thoughts here. I’m not going to be able to be exhaustive, but will try and cover what I think are the most important points. I’ve been lucky enough to work with colleagues who are not scientists and below are the things that I try to do and have picked up from others more experienced than I am.

Ground rules

First, I think it is important to establish ground rules, and I have three of these:

  1. Show some humility

Observing outside your specialism requires humility. Do not go into that classroom thinking that you are the expert and that your poor beleaguered colleague is just desperate for the pearls of wisdom you have to offer them. You don’t know the subject, you probably don’t know the class, you don’t know what they studied yesterday, last week or last year and you don’t know the departmental priorities. Obviously, it is a good idea to have that conversation first and try and get a better picture, but ultimately you will be at a position of knowledge inferiority against your colleague. So show some humility.

2. Lower those stakes

If you are still using one-off lesson observations to give teachers a grade and feed into their performance management, you should stop doing that. Observations should be there for the formative benefit of both observer and observed, and it is worth looking at ways to make sure everyone is perfectly comfortable with the observation.

If you are looking to challenge school leaders around this (and you should) then I have a section here with some materials you may find helpful.

3. Ask the questions

I’ll go into this more below, but when you feedback you need to make sure you get your facts straight first. You might see something you don’t like at first, but then actually it makes perfect sense based on this subject, this teacher and this class – so make sure to ask and have an open conversation.

The general and the disciplinary

There are some things we know work, and we know expert teachers do. Retrieval practice, explanations in short chunks and plentiful practice all spring to mind. How do these tie in with the approach that says curriculum and disciplinary knowledge come first?

I think the answer is that it might be the case that I could walk into a history lesson and see retrieval practice in action, but I wouldn’t really know if that retrieval practice was any good. I wouldn’t necessarily know if the questions and answers were correct or even relevant to the curriculum being studied or these students’ place within it. I wouldn’t be able to notice if there was some aspect of language that should have been picked up on or if the feedback given was correct. An expert teacher might also like to start making connections between different topics, but they would only start doing that at a certain point in their students’ learning journey. Would I be able to know when the correct point was? Probably not.

I normally try and chunk my explanations into small pieces, but there are some things which I do in a more extended fashion. When I teach the hydrogen fuel cell, my explanation often lasts around 40 minutes. There’s a good reason for that – a disciplinary reason for that, and most people who aren’t chemists – let alone science teachers at all – might not understand why that is. Similarly, when I am in my subject’s hinterland, I will often talk for a lot longer and use completely different techniques to when I am in my subject’s core. A non-specialist might not notice the difference, so as above it’s important that there’s a sensible conversation afterwards.

Practice is a really important one too. My fellow science teachers will be familiar with the fact that there are now thousands of resources and worksheets out there of highly variable quality. So it could well be that a non-specialist can observe and see that my students have lots of practice, but would they be able to judge the quality of the actual work I have set, let alone the quality of their responses? To my shame in the past I have given out many a terrible worksheet that at the time I thought was great. But they aren’t always tied to the material, don’t cause students to think about the right thing, don’t tie to previous material etc etc. A non-specialist simply can’t judge the quality of that. We could have a great conversation about it afterwards where I could explain my thinking, but without that the process is deeply flawed.

Sputnik Steve (English teacher) once watched a video of one of my lessons for me and said that after my explanation I hadn’t properly checked for understanding. He was dead right: and I should have done, and his was great feedback. But let’s say I had done and sampled a few student responses – would he have been able to tell how good those responses were? Would he have been able to say “actually Adam, the technical language they were using was all wrong and they were full of misconceptions”? I doubt it.

Is there really no value in observing a lesson outside your subject?

No, there is value. But you need to know your stuff, and you need to understand that you are in a position of knowledge deficit. Often, the conversation afterwards – when done properly – can be incredibly illuminating. Whilst I don’t think I benefited much from watching an entire lesson in Spanish, I know that I have benefited from watching many lessons outside of my subject and from being observed by non-specialists.

So there it is. I’m not in the business of seeking balance for the sake of it, and in this case I do think that the weight is clearly over to one side. So perhaps it isn’t a balance which is sought, but certainly a nuance.

Please keep up the conversation, I’ve benefited immensely from it and I hope others have too.

Teaching and Learning is Dead

We’ve all been there: formal observation with a non-specialist. Being told that our AfL was sub-par, that our activities weren’t engaging enough, that we hadn’t appropriately differentiated for SEN, EAL, PP, G&T, HPA, LPA etc etc.

It’s incredibly frustrating to be told by someone who doesn’t know your subject that you are teaching it wrong. How can it be that someone who knows nothing about covalent bonding can tell me that my teaching of it is sub-standard because I didn’t progress up Bloom’s taxonomy? How can it be that someone can judge my sixth form marking when they cannot decipher the symbols and equations on the page?

It has somehow become an orthodoxy that such a thing is possible. That a science teacher can assess the quality of an English teacher who can assess the quality of a maths teacher who can assess the quality of a PE teacher and so on and so forth. I remember once being told to go and observe an “outstanding” head of MFL. The entire lesson was in Spanish, a language of which I habla nada (?). But it’s fine, because I was there to observe teaching and learning: a universal set of practices that could be employed in any classroom in any subject to achieve rapid progress.


Ofsted has its part to play here. I don’t know the exact history or much care, but a culture has developed around observing teaching and learning. From an accountability perspective it makes sense: you need some way of going into a classroom for a short period of time and saying whether or not the teaching and learning is effective. So you invent some kind of proxy that makes it easy to judge the quality of a teacher in twenty minutes, and the proxy has to be obvious and observable. So you end up with three part lessons, mini-plenaries every 90 seconds with whiteboards, traffic lights and thumbs up and down and students wandering around the class hunting for information so that you can see by their shining faces just how engaged they are.


I remember when I was training going to visit a local school with a brilliant reputation for teaching and learning. I sat in on staff briefing where a couple of hip young teachers had this thing where they went to the local pound shop and bought some piece of junk: a tupperware or a furry dice or whatever. They pulled a name out of a hat and a member of staff had to take the junk to use in their lesson at some point that week. After this, last week’s lucky winner had to, in front of all the staff, explain how they had used a purple macintosh as part of their year 12 Latin lesson.

It’s all a good laugh, sure. Staff bonding and all that. But it completely ignores something that’s pretty damn important: the actual subject. It says “right, how am I going to use this resource in my teaching?” instead of “ok which resources are most appropriate to my teaching?”

On the surface it sounds great, and it makes a staff feel like there is a real “buzz” around teaching and learning. But the buzz rings hollow, devoid as it is of any actual substance.


Like many others, my thinking on this has changed radically over the past few years. It’s only recently that one of my performance management targets was to embed more group work into my lessons, as if it were some kind of universal Good that would improve any of my lessons, regardless of the actual content. But I’ve been lucky enough to read some inspirational writers on the topic and have my thinking jarringly challenged. I’ve come to believe that the phrase teaching and learning simply won’t do any more. It carries too much generic baggage: too much of the tick box culture which has allowed non-specialists to tell me that I’m not teaching science properly. Most importantly, it starts from the wrong place. It starts the teaching, not the content. What is the point of talking about teaching unless you are talking about content?


Frederick Reif has a great graphic in his book which looks a bit like this:


You start with two states: Student (initial) and Student (final). The change from your student as they are at the beginning (initially) to the student as they are at the end (finally) is called learning:Slide2

And, somewhat obviously, that learning is as a result of teaching: from a teacher, from a book, from a life experience – it doesn’t matter:


But here’s the thing: the T bit of the diagram is the least interesting part of the process. Even the “learning” part of the diagram isn’t the most interesting, because that’s just a journey.

The interesting part is not the teaching or the learning, it is the difference between our initial student and our final student. What have they learned? How are they different now to before? To me, that’s what’s really interesting.


I talk here of course about curriculum: education buzzword of 2019 and beyond. The substance of what is to be taught. That which inheres in Student (final) but does not in Student (initial). The teaching and the learning are important, but they are tools, processes which are subservient to the curriculum. We do need to talk about them, but only insofar as how we optimise them to deliver the curriculum.


Ofsted’s draft handbook for September 2019 is a radical document steeped in this kind of thinking. To me, just as important as what is in the document is that which is not in the document. I talk here of the old heading “teaching and learning” or “teaching, learning and assessment;” phrases which have been excised from the 2019 draft. Instead of teaching and learning, we have a broad heading of “quality of education,” which splits into subsections. The one that interests us here is “curriculum implementation.” To me, this phrase rings the death knell of Teaching and Learning, because it’s so much better. Sure, it doesn’t sound as snappy and being Assistant Head with Responsibility for Curriculum Implementation probably won’t get you many followers on twitter, but it’s more correct. Because it puts the curriculum first. It says right, this is our curriculum, this is the difference between Student (initial) and Student (final): how are we going to implement it? How are we going to make sure our students make that learning journey?

The answer to these questions by definition is tied to the curriculum. I am implementing a science curriculum, and the way I do that is different to how my colleagues implementing their history or English or maths curriculum will do it. Because Student (final) is different in my subject to theirs. It’s all in the curriculum, and how I implement it.

You can’t come into my classroom as a Spanish teacher and tell me I’m implementing my curriculum wrong, because you don’t know my curriculum. And Lord knows I don’t know yours, so I’m sure as infierno not going to come into your class and tell you that you’re implementing your curriculum wrong. I wouldn’t have the faintest clue.

Schools will need to change. It isn’t good enough to rename the Assistant Head for T&L as the Assistant Head for Curriculum Implementation. Schools will need to mine the knowledge of their subject experts in a bid to understand what progress looks like in those subjects. To understand what a science, geography or D&T curriculum is, and how its implementation is carried out. To clarify the difference between Student (initial) and Student (final) in each and every subject which that student is immersed in.


I think teaching and learning is dead. I suspect that teaching and learning doesn’t know it’s dead, and I suspect that it will stagger on for many years to come. But it’s certainly time for it to be retired, for that generic chapter in our sector’s story to be closed.

Teaching and learning is dead: long live curriculum implementation!


You can find a follow-up to this blog here, which deals with what a non-specialist can do in an observation

My thinking on this has been greatly influenced by Chistine Counsell and you can find more of her writing on the topic here. I also have a list of things on curriculum to read here and I recommend Stuart Lock’s blog here. You my also be interested in the recent symposium on curriculum in science here.

Modelling Curricular Thinking: Inspired by Ben Ranson

I was just settling in for a well-earned evening playing video games on my laptop when I saw this thread by Ben Ranson:

The reason why Ben’s thread is important is because it models curricular thinking. Most of us (including myself) are not trained to think deeply about curriculum, and in this bright new era of curriculum, curriculum, curriculum, we need models – like the one Ben has provided – to stimulate our own thinking and provoke us to re-evaluate the what, why and how of our subject. The more models we have, the greater chance that this new era indeed shines bright as schools and leaders take ownership of their curriculum instead of outsourcing their thinking to consultants, or drowning it in endless generic bureaucracy.

I therefore wanted to share some of our thinking too. I’ve written a lot about our new Key Stage 3 curriculum, but what I want to do here is give one example of how we have thought about the actual disciplinary substance of our curriculum and how we have thought about the sequencing of core concepts. Throughout I will try to use terms from Ruth’s blog on the language of curriculum, which I recommend you read, and will signal by bolding the term.

The problem: where to start?

Where do you start with year 7? You know you want to teach them biology, chemistry and physics, but which comes first? And which topics from within those broader disciplines do you introduce first?

The easy one: chemistry

Chemistry is probably the easiest to figure out what to start with. That’s because even though chemistry can branch off pretty rapidly into horizontal areas, everything in chemistry stems vertically from a set of fundamental principles: atoms, elements, compounds, molecules, conservation of mass and equations. Without that, you can’t study anything in chemistry. So even though you could certainly study rates of reaction without studying fractional distillation, you would be hard pressed to study any of those without those fundamentals.

Image 1
Theoretically, you can teach rates of reaction, organic chemistry and acids/alkalis independently of each other. You wouldn’t actually do this, but you could. But you can’t do any of them before students have the fundamentals pat.

Actually figuring out what to include was the tough part, as many standard textbooks and schemes of work use confusing and self referential definitions like:

Atom: the smallest part of an element that can exist

Element: a substance made of one type of atom

Which doesn’t really help anyone. You can see how we have built our unit in its entirety here.

Getting tougher: biology

Biology tends to be a bit less structured like that. Topics obviously do relate to each other, like interdependence and adaptation, but there isn’t really a central pillar that everything rests on: the fundamentals of chemistry can be thought of as the basic grammar of the subject – the way that scientists talk about chemistry is through that language – but biology doesn’t quite have the same thing. We decided to go with cells for a few reasons:

  • The language of structure and function is definitely part of the grammar of biology
  • It’s quite mind-blowing
  • It has a strong hinterland in terms of the history of the microscope and the way we think about life (see here for more)
  • It foreshadows many other topics like organ systems, circulation, digestion etc etc.

The downside is the sheer amount of content in the topic. In order to do it properly, we wanted students to study five specialised cells in detail as well as an entire organ system and how a microscope works. That represents quite a lot of material, so we didn’t really want it to be the first unit year 7 studied: we wanted to get them into good habits of memory like regular retrieval practice before throwing an enormous amount of declarative knowledge at them.

Physics – my head hurts

Physics is even harder to figure out, because even though the topics link to a massive extent, there has to have been some serious epistemic ascent before the pieces really start to come together. This is partly because physicists understand the world through many different lenses and perspectives, depending on the problem at hand. If even undergraduate physicists can struggle to untangle and properly assimilate topics like forces and energy we need to be very careful about how we sequence the knowledge. Probably the most common plank between topics in physics is mathematisation and the use of formulae, with another contender being the concept of using abstract models to understand the world.

We decided to go with energy stores and transfers first. The reason for this is:

  • It is an archetypal way to demonstrate how physicists use abstract models to interpret the world
  • Even though the content is abstract we could use a lot of concrete examples
  • We thought we could tie it into the the greatest number of future units
  • Even once students have “got” the concept, using the correct language takes time, so we could revisit it regularly
  • It can build up to vitally important topics like renewables and energy economies
  • We can use P=E/t to introduce formulae

We built the unit to cover the stores and transfers model fully and lead up to a few exemplars: the coal power plant, wind turbines and hydroelectric. And we drilled the stores and transfers so well, that by the time we got to the power plants it wasn’t a confusing mess like they normally are when you teach them, but a really straightforward application of knowledge students were already fluent in.

We also didn’t want this physics unit to come first. We felt it would be a really tough unit for the students and teachers should be at the point with their classes where they know them well and are more adept at supporting them through it.

So which comes first?

Following the logic above, we have chemistry fundamentals first, and then either cells or energy stores. We decided to do stores first, based on the following logic:

  • When teaching cells, you have to teach organelles
  • “Organelles” includes mitochondria and chloroplasts
  • So you also have to mention respiration and photosynthesis
  • To understand these properly, you need to understand chemical reactions and energy transfers
  • In the past, these had appeared as bounded – definitions that students just had to learn because they had no proper knowledge of reactions or energy
  • If we did the chemistry and physics first, these central planks of biology could be properly understood

An added bonus of doing chemistry then physics was that when we got to the coal power plant, we could talk about combustion properly. We could do proper equations and show students how the chemistry finds itself in the physics. We could then build up to respiration and photosynthesis in the same light: reactions that are either analagous or the complete reverse. This would be crucial for our students’ schema development and understanding of the links between the topics.

This leaves us with a sequence that looks like this:

  • Chemistry fundamentals, including proper understanding of equations
  • Energy stores, including proper understanding of combustion in physics
  • Cells, including proper understanding of photosynthesis and respiration

That’s it for now. Would love to hear your thoughts, and would especially love to see other models like this across the subjects.

Core and hinterland: What’s what and why it matters

In 1918, the Nobel Prize for Chemistry was awarded to a war criminal.

In the early years of the 20th century, German scientist Fritz Haber developed a process to artificially synthesise ammonia, a vital component of agricultural fertilisers. A reaction that changed the world, his process drove a ballooning in industrial agriculture and, with the fullness of time, allowed for a population explosion and the pulling of billions of people out of poverty.

But Haber’s oeuvre extended from the globally beneficial to the sinister. A fervent nationalist, in World War I he turned his brilliance to the German war effort and pioneered the use of chemical weaponry on the battlefield, personally supervising the first administration of deadly chlorine gas in the trenches of Flanders.

Despite these contributions to the Fatherland, Haber was forced to leave Germany because he had Jewish ancestry: an ancestry he despised. In a grimly ironic turn of historical events, the laboratory which he had headed went on to be instrumental in the production of the chemical Zyklon B, a chemical used by Hitler’s SS to murder hundreds of thousands of Haber’s own people in the gas chambers at Auschwitz.


The Haber Process has been on the GCSE Chemistry curriculum for many years and every year when I teach the process, I tell Haber’s story. As a Jew and as a teacher of science, it’s important to me and it serves as the most extreme of cautionary tales about the role of science in modern society. But I don’t expect my students to remember its details. I don’t have a knowledge organiser chronicling its events, or expanding the discussion to Haber’s tragic family life and the suicides of his wife and son. There are no assessment questions in our end of unit test asking students to evaluate the significance of science’s contribution to World War I. I set no drill questions on the viability of gas as a weapon of war.


When discussing curriculum, Christine Counsell presents a paradox at the heart of curricular choice: on the one hand, we all know that there is content which we wish students to remember, and by contrast content we cover in class which we don’t deem necessary for them to remember. This would ordinarily lead us to de-emphasise the latter in favour of the former. The other hand of our paradox though is that without that material, without the “stuff we don’t need our students to remember,” our curriculum becomes denuded of wider meaning and majesty: it ceases to be one thread of the epic story of humanity and becomes a sterile and sanitised exam-ready product.

To aid us in thinking about this paradox, Counsell posits the use of two terms: core and hinterland. Such terms are not carved-in-stone categories, delivered by God to Moses at Sinai. They are intellectual devices which should serve as a prompt for us to reflect on, and clarify, our curricular decision-making.

I think of core as the stuff I want my students to remember and to stick in their long term memories: all the details and propositions that make up the cognitive architecture of a creative and innovative scientist. Hinterland is how I frame that knowledge: the stories I tell and the examples I use. It’s the ground from which the core springs. So in my example, the core includes the equations for the Haber process, the effects of changing conditions on the equilibrium, the idea of a compromise condition and so on and so forth. The tale is how I frame it. Haber’s process is core, Haber’s story is hinterland.


This is an incredibly powerful distinction to be made when thinking about science, and indeed all, curriculum. When we are teaching, what is it specifically that we want students to remember, and what is it specifically that we use to make it memorable? I can imagine this question cropping up across the sciences and across the key stages, and I would like to try and explain why ignorance of it may be responsible for some curriculum faux pas.

We know that an exam specification is not a curriculum, but let’s take a fairly common section from the GCSE syllabus: the history of the atom. The spec goes into quite a bit of detail about the different models of the atom proposed by various scientists, and the experiments that moved them from one model to the next. In the AQA syllabus the entire section is prefaced by:

New experimental evidence may lead to a scientific model being
changed or replaced.

Ah! To me, that’s core. An incredibly important point, perhaps the most fundamental concept in the disciplinary substance of science. Evidence is king, and we are but servants before it. Beautiful.

But I would argue that using the history of the atom to illustrate it is hinterland. Is it really important that GCSE students know about how alpha scattering proves that the plum pudding model is wrong? Or that they know the names of Niels Bohr and James Chadwick specifically? Why these chemists? Why are these specifically the only named chemists in the entire specification? Are these the best examples to discuss how experimental evidence leads to scientific models being changed or replaced? What about phlogiston and the conservation of mass? What about Grecian Classical Elements? What about the now-excised-from-the-curriculum theories of continental drift or land bridges? What is the core here, and what is the hinterland?

Further, there is perhaps even an incoherence at play here as we compare the following statements:

The results from the alpha particle scattering experiment led to the
conclusion that the mass of an atom was concentrated at the centre
(nucleus) and that the nucleus was charged. This nuclear model
replaced the plum pudding model.

Niels Bohr adapted the nuclear model by suggesting that electrons
orbit the nucleus at specific distances. The theoretical calculations of
Bohr agreed with experimental observations.

It looks to me like students need to know the details of the alpha particle scattering in a way that they don’t for Bohr’s experiments. But why? Why do they only need to know that his calculations agreed with observations, a fact that is true, but surely not particularly exciting, powerful or far-reaching? The same is true of later developments, students are just expected to know that they occurred, but not to know why or how those developments came about:

The experimental work of James Chadwick provided the evidence to
show the existence of neutrons within the nucleus. This was about
20 years after the nucleus became an accepted scientific idea.

If we were writing from scratch, and we had core and hinterland in mind, would we make these curricular decisions? I’m not convinced we would.

Let’s look at another contender for hinterland: “real world” applications of scientific principles. Extraction of aluminium is probably a good one, where we expect students to learn that in the industrial extraction of aluminium, graphite anodes need to be replaced by factory owners as they react with the oxygen by-product of the electrolysis of aluminium oxide. Honestly, who cares? Does it really matter? Do GCSE students really need to know it? Is it really core? I can certainly imagine that there is a chemistry teacher out there who used to work in that industry, and probably tells their class stories of how they needed to replace the graphite electrodes. I have no doubt that I would enjoy being in that teacher’s class and that the hinterland they prepared was fertile for the planting of more fundamental and further reaching ideas. But I am not that teacher, and that hinterland is not the land that I would choose at the best of times: and now I am being tasked with calling it core.

To me, this represents a deficit in our curricular thinking – a failure to appreciate a vital distinction. Briefly, I would like to discuss two further ramifications of this distinction: scientific “application” and how pedagogy changes depending on whether that-to-be-taught is core or hinterland.


It would be quite easy to think of “application” questions as hinterland. For example, if a student is asked why the mass of magnesium increases when it is reacted with oxygen, it would be straightforward to think that the core knowledge here is “the law of conservation of mass,” with my hinterland being “isn’t this a cool example? The metal’s mass actually goes up when I burn it into this crumbly white powder!”

I’m sort of in two minds about this. On the one hand, sure. It’s just one example of a principle that works across the whole of chemistry. On the other hand, can you learn that principle without examples? Is the example a bit more than just an embellishment but a concrete scaffold, a fixed point in space that navigates us towards the broader principle? If that scaffold were taken away, would the core concept still be retained? I don’t know, and we decided in our KS3 curriculum that it would be a core idea, and we expect students to memorise how and why the mass of magnesium changes. Even more so, we use it as a “canonical example” in our How Science Works unit: because students know the principle well, it allows us to use it as hinterland in our discussion of theories, evidence and scientific conclusions. Yesterday’s core is today’s hinterland.

I’m not sure there’s a ready answer to this, but it underlines the need for us as a disciplinary community to discuss and establish the parameters and justifications for our curricular decisions.


Looking back, I find that my classroom craft changes depending on if I am teaching core or hinterland. Core is always straightforward: I break a topic up into small pieces, I use a lot of boardwork, ask a lot of questions and students do a lot of practice. I don’t move around the class too much, I try not to be too dramatic and try not to vary my intonation and speech patterns. I use technical but unembellished and prosaic language.

Quite the opposite tends to be the case when I walk in the hinterland. I move around the class more, I become physically animated and visibly excited. I vary my intonation and use poetic and emotive language. I can often talk for a long time without pause, without asking questions and without students taking notes or doing drill questions. I draw on my personal feelings and experiences in a way that I rarely do in my other interactions with students, I give just a little bit more of myself. When discussing Haber I talk about the pain I felt as a chemist when I stood in the gas chambers at Majdanek and saw the vivid blue stains on the walls, knowing it to be “prussian blue,” a characteristic residue of cyanide containing compounds. Standing in the hinterland is just…different. I know it’s different, the students know it’s different, and it serves to thoroughly underscore – to weave into the very fabric of our education system – that curriculum must precede pedagogy.


Core and hinterland are not fixed, firm categories. As above, what may be hinterland one day may be core another day. Haber’s story might be hinterland in science, but could be core in History, or in the History of Science. They aren’t bounded terms with indisputable meanings and parameters. They are tools for reflection and deeper curricular thinking. If we turn them into non-negotiables in curricular planning, and demand a central document for every faculty detailing which concept is which we will have missed the point.

I’ve tried above to show how this tool has influenced my thinking, how they have pushed me to consider my content and my teaching in a different light. I think that’s the spirit in which they should be used.

Much of the above is exploratory and, as I have said before, I am just starting out in my journey of thinking deeply about curriculum. But I doubt I’m alone. We need, as a subject community, to discuss this. We need, as a subject community, to utilise the tension and the paradox to grow intellectually, to sharpen our discourse and to reflect more meaningfully on what is indubitably the most important part of our teaching: the curriculum.


The above is my contribution to the Curriculum in Science Symposium. Our biggest symposium yet, I encourage you (scientist or no) to read the other contributions, links to which can be found here

I am incredibly grateful to Christine Counsell for providing me with feedback and guidance in writing the above. She is truly a force for good in our education system, and I am glad that the winds are finally beginning to shift in the direction she has advocated for many years.


The molecular Biology of a PGCE course – Dr Andrew Carroll

Below is Dr Andrew Carroll’s  contribution to the Curriculum in Science Symposium. See here for the introduction to the symposium and links to other contributions.

In this brief paper I will attempt to illustrate how, in my role as a PGCE tutor, I have structured a PGCE course around two central ideas:

  • Learning to teach does involve the acquisition of a specific type of knowledge.
  • The knowledge for teaching can be regarded as being organised into ‘schema’ which are adaptable.

I completed my PGCE in 1996, so of course I was introduced to the ‘holy tryptic’ of Bruner, Vygotsky & Piaget. I do not regret this experience. Amongst the things I remember most from those heady days is the concept of ‘schema:’

This belief has been galvanised quite recently by reading F.C. Bartlett’s book ‘Remembering’ for the first time, which I found serendipitously abandoned in a skip:

“Circumstances which arouse memory orientations, whether they occur in the laboratory or in everyday life, always set up an attitude that is primarily towards a particular ‘schematic’ organisation.” (Bartlett, 1932 p313)

Ghosh and Gilboa (2014) offer a fascinating history of the development of the idea of mental schema, suggesting that any schema must conform to four necessary factors.

To support my argument that the knowledge for teaching can be regarded as schematic. I will consider each of Ghosh and Gilboa’s necessary factors in the context of a PGCE course.

Associative Network Structure.

I would suggest that the knowledge required to teach science is made up of interrelated units; the content, pedagogical and contextual knowledge required to teach effectively. I will go on to present a metaphor I use with PGCE biology students, also explaining the ‘molecular biology’ of my title.

Has a basis of multiple episodes.

The majority of learning on a PGCE course happens through experience. The importance placed upon ‘reflection’ on/in experience in ITE could be interpreted as searching for commonalities across events. As Bartlett (1932) suggests “the past acts as an organized mass rather than as a group of elements each of which retains its specific character.” Cited in Ghosh and Gilboa (2014)

Lack of unit detail.

If a schema is based on multiple episodes, then it follows that generalisation will be required. It is interesting to consider this in relation to teaching science, where in terms of content knowledge, an awful lot of unit detail is required. I believe this to be the liminal space where content and pedagogy collide.


I believe there is no doubting that if there is a ‘schema’ for teaching science then it is adaptable. On a time scale ranging from the sub minute to years, teachers rely on schema which are constantly being adapted. I believe that adaptive schema provide the mechanism for assessment for learning and responsive teaching.

Of course, the notion of ‘schema’ can only ever be a metaphor; we will perhaps never know ‘what is really going on’, as a human forms memories and acquires knowledge and understanding in response to environmental stimuli.

In latter times, I think @olicav  has provided one of the best visual metaphors for the role of schema in the classroom.


As Lakoff and Johnson proposed; “…metaphors allow us to understand one domain of experience in terms of another.” (Lackoff and Johnson, 2008 p117).

The metaphor is omniscient in teaching, used consistently in the classroom and in thinking about demystifying how learning happens. The meta-metaphor perhaps?

I have found the concept of Pedagogical Content Knowledge (PCK) (Shulman 1986) to be a useful framework through which to view the schema metaphor.  A recent post by @HFletcherWood, commenting on  Loewenberg Ball et al (2008)’s refinement of Shulman’s original definition,  emphasises the importance of teachers having the “the most effective representations to teach an idea” requiring “careful selection from a good stock of metaphors, models and images.”

I believe it is helpful for students to conceptualise their emerging practice as a form of knowledge as opposed to a skill, building their “good stock” of pedagogical content knowledge through practise, feedback and criticality arising from scholarly activity. It perhaps negates the ‘cult of the personality’, soothing underconfident student teachers in their “I’ll never be like Ms X, down the corridor” moments.

It is the teacher’s role to help their pupils acquire a schema, both the pieces of information within it and the connections between them. Then, it goes without saying that their own schema must be secure. In helping visualise a schema for teaching, consider the elephants (in the room) below as representing how PGCE students might think about the development of their own schema for teaching .

Novice Expert
ac2 ac3


In thinking about a curriculum which in part, aims to support PGCE students acquiring PCK schema, it has been helpful to think about the three following intentions.

  • Ensure students know where the ‘dots’, which constitute the body of knowledge, are.
  • Guide them to forge links between the ‘dots’.
  • Assure them, that with time, they will be able to ‘fill in the spaces’

With Biology PGCE students I have found it helpful to evoke an evoke an analogy with the central dogma of molecular biology. DNA to RNAs to protein. Students are asked to consider their emerging PCK schema as a eukaryotic cell. Where the core CK (DNA) is transported out of its domain, to be modified and processed by knowledge from within other ‘domains’ (RNA’s), its structure changed to provide the functional knowledge for teaching (protein). I believe the core CK is adapted through the knowledge of the pedagogy, philosophy, history and nature of science itself. Alongside knowledge of the pupils, how they learn and the context in which they are learning. Students need to know through which domains and how, their CK will be transcribed and translated.


For the sake of brevity and not over stretching a metaphor, what follows is a description of how I have constructed a curriculum based on this model.  A curriculum which needs to work for students through; lectures and assignments, and classroom practice. I am going to concentrate on:

  • The content Knowledge
  • The ‘narrative’ of that knowledge

The ‘excavation’ of pre-existing content knowledge schema

It is interesting to note that along the spectrum of theoretical opinion of how science should be best taught, from constructivism to explicit instruction, the importance of ‘prior knowledge’ or ‘existing schema’ is prominent.  The duration of the PGCE would not allow for the ground up construction of science knowledge schema. I believe the job of a PGCE curriculum is to gently excavate the pre-existing schema. We also have to recognise that potential science teachers come from a wide variety of degree backgrounds and experience. The ‘archaeological’ re-revealing of the long-lost schema for ‘photosynthesis’ for example, is going to be different for every student. This is where a knowledge-based curriculum delivered pedagogically differs from its andragogically delivered relative. We hand the re-learning over to the learner, but not entirely.

As with most PGCE providers establishing students’ content knowledge happens at the interview stage, which, in my context, involves an MCQ test. Aligned to current specifications, designed also to diagnose pre- and misconceptions, it does end with the inevitable ‘action plan’.  In supporting students in this pre-course phase, indirectly fulfilling the requirements of their action plans, I recommend the @Cam_Assessment archive of examination papers.  The question below, taken from a 1974 A level paper, has proved to be a very telling question for prospective biology teachers.


I believe it is important to always focus post observed lesson discussion on the emerging PCK and not on the personality of the student teacher. I have found that pre-lesson planning work with students can also be helped by asking them, prior to thinking about activities, to consider and describe the ‘narrative’ of the knowledge and how it will unfold before the class, as they teach.

The narrative of the Knowledge:

I do find this to be the trickiest part of my curriculum design. It requires students to have knowledge and understanding beyond the scientific domain with which they are familiar. They need to have a knowledge of the knowledge as it appears in the national curriculum and beyond. The majority of this learning happens through preparing PGCE students to write at masters’ level.  Depending on their prior experience, students often struggle with the language of the social sciences; philosophy, and history of science and education. This is recognised in our curriculum.  Where I have to admit, I often slip into a more pedagogical approach, we learn unencountered definitions and then explore the concepts, in relation to classroom practice.

As an example, students are encouraged to understand the nature of the knowledge they will be working with as teachers. We consider definitions of different types of knowledge. I have found Winch (2017) useful for students to think about their ‘applied subject knowledge’. Where it is suggested that it is important for a teacher to question the omniscience of the subject knowledge.

“Pictorially the difference is between seeing the subject as a room from the ceiling downwards on the one hand (as a putative expert) and opening a door onto the room on the other (as a novice aspiring to greater expertise)” (Winch 2017 p80/81).

Introducing PGCE students to this form of philosophical enquiry, I believe goes some way towards helping them “fill in the gaps”, incorporating their C  into PCK.

To summarise:

As we will probably never really understand what happens when teaching results in learning:

  • The empirically and philosophically endorsed concept of schema is a useful for PGCE students
  • Although it has limits when considering PCK.
  • I am suggesting a teacher’s ‘knowledge’ should have subject knowledge as its template (the DNA)
  • A template upon which is built, a knowledge of teaching and of the pupils being taught.


Bartlett, F.C., 1932. Remembering: An experimental and social study. Cambridge: Cambridge University.

Ghosh, V.E. and Gilboa, A., 2014. What is a memory schema? A historical perspective on current neuroscience literature. Neuropsychologia53, pp.104-114.

Lakoff, G. and Johnson, M., 2008. Metaphors we live by. University of Chicago press.

Loewenberg Ball, D., Thames, M.H. and Phelps, G., 2008. Content knowledge for teaching: What makes it special? Journal of teacher education59(5), pp.389-407.

Shulman, L.S., 1986. Those who understand: Knowledge growth in teaching. Educational researcher15(2), pp.4-14.

Winch, C., 2017. Teachers’ Know-How: A Philosophical Investigation. John Wiley & Sons.














Diiferentiation is well-intentioned. But it is bankrupt – Guest Post

The below was sent to me by a friend who wishes to remain anonymous for fear of ramifications if their senior leaders see it. Please read, enjoy, and show them some support. 


Humans are intentional beings. We want things to happen and we choose actions to bring those things about.  But there is folly in judging the goodness of something by the intentions of its agent, rather than its actual outcomes. “For-profit” companies become insolvent. Political regimes are established to liberate but grow to oppress. The violent alcoholic partner who really wants to change is still a danger to you and your children.

The aim of differentiation is to help children. Because children enter our classes with different starting points, it is rational to think that by giving them different work, we can challenge each group the correct amount and allow each child to make the most progress possible. The intention is good.

But what is the outcome? The outcome is that for the past 15 years, observers of lessons, including Ofsted, praised our lessons for catering to the needs of all groups, and we go home happy knowing that we have been good teachers.

Stop! That is not a proper outcome. What is the effect on learning?

I have tried and failed to find any research evidence that links differentiation to increased outcomes for students. This blog by Greg Ashman is a thorough discussion of the evidence that does exist, and shows that none of the research conducted shows that differentiation improves learning.

This is quite horrifying. The opportunity costs for time spent planning for differentiation are huge. It begins to look as though differentiation could have the opposite outcome to its intention, like those bankrupt companies, totalitarian governments, and abusive husbands.

In fact there is evidence to show that this is exactly what happens. Greg Ashman again, this time plotting mean test scores against amount of differentiation from TALIS data:

ros 1

But how can this be? We are planning to help children, not hinder them: how can our plan not succeed.

The first thing to say here is that just because you want something to happen, doesn’t mean it will happen. This sounds ridiculously obvious but I don’t think many people think about it in education. Things happen because of mechanisms, variables, the physical nuts and bolts of the initial conditions and operations.

Let us consider the nuts and bolts of differentiation. In one form of differentiation, teachers create for example three activities of varying difficulty and students choose which one they want to do. This is pretty obviously going to inhibit progress as students with aspirational backgrounds choose challenging work and those without choose easy ones. The gap widens.

A perceived improvement on this is for the teacher to look at previous assessment data and then assign the different tasks accordingly. But this approach represents a serious misunderstanding of data. The data points we have for individual children, from KS2 tests, internal assessments and the like, can only tell us about the particular questions on that assessment they did did well on and did badly on. You can’t put a ceiling on a student’s work on Romeo and Juliet because they did mediocre on Of Mice And Men.

Ok, how about we put students into groups based on their question-level analysis or performance in front us on mini-whiteboards, and they work on the areas they need to improve? This is deceptive. It sounds like it solves the problems in the first two examples, and in theory it does. But in practice we have a different story.

Education is a practical activity. You have real students, 30 of them, 30 chairs, a room, a whiteboard, a teacher. Putting students into groups and getting them to work on something independently is never going to give you the outcomes you would get from interactive teaching of the whole class, directed by the teacher. It is never going to happen. Students need guidance from their teacher. That is a fact of education. You can run around the room giving rushed guidance to each group. Or you can give well-delivered, confident, deliberate instruction to everyone. The objection here is that students from group 5 will have to listen to your explanation of question 2 even though they all got it right. This won’t be an effective use of their time, is the argument.  Better put everyone into groups again and get them going on their own, right? Wrong.

The difference here is intention vs outcomes:

Whole-class teaching:

ros 2

For differentiated groups, students have to listen to the instructions about the groupings and the activities, worry about what their grouping means and whether they have got friends in their group, move into their group, retain the instructions in their head, or work them out again if they are written down… and then they have to do the work, either on something that is new to them or the thing they struggled the most with and got wrong before, with minimal guidance from the teacher. Even in the most perfectly organised, impeccably behaved classroom, in this set-up, the teacher must divide their attention between groups. If there are 6 groups, in an hour’s lesson, each group will get a maximum of 10 minutes of teacher attention each. And this is not 10 minutes of precisely timed support, just when the students need it. It’s 10 minutes when it can fit around the other 5 groups. This is crazy. No student will make the most progress possible under these conditions. And the students who need the most support will struggle the most and fall further behind. You can pretend to yourself that this is not true, that if differentiation is done really, really well, this is not the case. You can lie to yourself if that is the path you choose. But outcomes in the real world happen because of real things, not just because you want them to.

We should support our learners by creating excellent explanations and practice questions, by peppering them with questions and making sure they work hard all the time. We should give all students the best possible opportunity for success by teaching them in a unified group, with rational acceptance that 5 minutes might be revision  or easy practice (which in any case are valuable for the building of long-term memory) so that 55 minutes can be effective learning for all. We should not indulge our vane delusion that we can make something happen just by deciding that’s what we are doing, and never mind the laws of time, space and cognition.

Ofsted is no longer proscribing preferred teaching methods. The focus for quality of education, apart from external exam results, will be the quality of the curriculum, and its intent and implementation. We can expect Ofsted to be asking a lot of questions about how curriculum is implemented. My main question here is: “Is a well-planned differentiated lesson as effective at implementing your curriculum as a well-planned whole-class teaching lesson?” The answer is no and it will always be no. You can’t change space and time. You can’t make things happen just by wanting them.

And schools up and down the country are getting brilliant results with whole-class teaching, much better than we’ve ever seen come out of a differentiated lesson. The work by students at MCS Brent and Magna Academy Poole is phenomenal and is the result of carefully planned whole-class teaching. And if you’re into Ofsted reports, they are both Outstanding.

Some people will read this post and then pretend to themselves that they haven’t read it, or rationalise it in some way so that they don’t have to change their outlook. It’s uncomfortable to realise we got it wrong. The realisation will come, in maybe a year, maybe two or three, when Ofsted come and their question is “Is this the most effective way of implementing your curriculum?” Many will not want to wait until that point, and will face this truth today. Differentiation was a mistake, it sounded great and we meant well but there are fundamental reasons why it always fails in comparison to whole-class teaching. We are teachers: we are here for our students and our subjects and we’re prepared to change our minds if it means better outcomes for all.

Once you have read about these arguments, you can never go back. You can pretend to yourself that you haven’t read them, or you can rationalise this situation to yourself, protect yourself from the truth, but you can’t claim integrity. Or you can turn your face to the sun and march against the myth. It takes courage and humility to admit that we got this wrong but it is the only morally and intellectually sound thing to do. Not everyone has got what it takes to do this. Have you?


Adam’s note: I think it is a crying shame that some leaders are so small minded that their staff don’t feel comfortable publishing articles that challenge the orthodoxy. I have found writing to be an incredibly helpful experience for myself, and because I don’t think that anyone should be denied that opportunity for arbitrary reasons if you want to write an article to be published here anonymously feel free to send it to me and I will do my best to help you out. 


Data’s veil of ignorance

A few years back I went for a pizza with an old friend. We shared a pretty large pizza but somehow ended up with just one slice left between the two of us which we both desperately wanted. Bearing in mind that we would both happily lie, trick or outright fight each other for the last slice, our ensuing discussion about how to apportion it ended in a stalemate, with neither of us agreeing on a compromise. At this point, my friend suggested a solution: I would cut the slice in half, and he would choose which half to take.

Brilliant. It was in my interests to cut it as equally as possible, guaranteeing that we would both get those last few mouthfuls of now-cold pizza. Because I didn’t know which half I would get, the only logical path was to cut it equally.


Without knowing it, my friend had stumbled across an incredibly important theory from political philosophy: John Rawls’ Veil of Ignorance. The Veil is a way of distributing the goods and resources of society equally. Essentially, you decide to structure society – its rules and its norms – before you know which role you will take within that society. So you wouldn’t set up a society where 20% of citizens are slaves, because you don’t know if you are going to be a slave or free. You wouldn’t set it up under patriarchal lines, because you don’t know if you will be male or female. You would include access for the disabled in infrastructure, equitable toilets in public spaces and social support for those struggling with ill health as who knows – perhaps you will be disabled, will want equitable access to a toilet or will have poor physical or mental health. Not knowing if you were to be gay or straight, would you not legalise gay marriage? This is how Rawls argued we should set the rules and mores of our society.

It’s a great thought experiment for a couple of reasons. First, because it forces you to think of the Other. Normally whenever thinking about such charged topics it’s difficult to divorce our private personal experiences and histories from our public opinions about the structure of society and its laws. Middle class, working class, black, white, gay, straight, atheist, Jew or Christian – it forces you to anticipate everyone’s needs. You don’t know who you are going to be, so you have to think about what it must be like to be absolutely anyone else. If I were to be that person, what would I want? What would I need?

The second reason I think it’s important is that it forces you into a radical re-imagining of what things could be like. If you started from scratch, if you hit the “delete” button on everything you had: every rule, every policy, every law and every structure – what would the world look like?


You can play this game with smaller entities than entire countries too. A school would be a prime candidate. Most schools I know have over the years built up a huge amount of clutter: “new” policies built on the remains of old policies, departmental inconsistencies, cultures that are a messy patchwork of hearsay, experience from other schools and barely remembered CPD. School life and culture is an often incoherent amalgam of historical detritus: the debris left in the wake of any large organisation strapped for time and cash.

Such an environment is ripe for the question to be asked: what would it look like if we could start again? What if we could de-clutter the detritus and start afresh? The Veil is perfect for this.

The Veil is helpful for another reason too: in my admittedly limited experience I’ve found that different people in a school don’t really know what their colleagues do most of the time, and therefore cannot understand or anticipate what they need in order to do their job effectively. Teachers might not understand the needs of the head, the head might not understand the needs of a TA, a TA might not understand the needs of the School Business Manager who in turn may not understand the needs of the parents. Students, parents, governors, heads of department, site staff: all fit into this mess of conflicting needs and agendas. Each of these people fulfills a vital role in a school, and the needs of each must be considered when designing policy.


I’ve been reading a lot of articles about school use of data recently. I don’t consider myself an expert. I know some people who really are, and I’m not one of them. I’ve asked a lot of questions and I’ve read a lot of articles on the topic but I’m still way behind. I do think that data would be an interesting case study for our Veil thought experiment, and as many schools are thinking about their data policies the Veil could prove a useful theoretical framework through which to assess and adapt school data policies. The framework would boil down to two simple questions:

  1. In terms of data, what are the needs of the different agents in a school environment?
  2. Starting from scratch, how could we design a system that caters to all their needs?

Below are my tentative steps to addressing these questions. I’m not going to answer them directly, but I am going to point to a number of areas that I think are worth considering. With Ofsted announcing that they will no longer look at internal data, there has never been a better time to radically re-imagine your school’s data policy. I haven’t linked to everything that I have read on the topic, but I have collected a number of articles here.

  1. Trust

Do you trust your staff? If you’re the one writing the policy, do you trust what your staff have to say about your students? Maybe, maybe not. But sure as hell if you were a teacher you would want to be trusted. And that’s the point of the exercise – you don’t know which role you will take. So you have to build a system predicated on trusting your staff, and providing them with the means to make judgments which they are confident in.

2. Who needs what?

People need different things from the data. If you decide that your deputy head needs detailed sub-levels colour coded and subtracted from target grades that’s fine (though I wouldn’t recommend it), but it may not be what the parents need. If you were a parent of a child at your school, what do you actually need to know from the school? Different roles need different things.

3. Workload

I managed to get to point 3 before talking about workload. As a Head or Deputy with only a handful of classes, it might feel reasonable to ask for three, four or five data drops a year. But if you were to be a frontline teacher actually implementing this policy with 14 classes…maybe not so much. Equally, frontline staff need to appreciate the need for strategic planning and preparation. If you were going to be a deputy head, you would want to have some kind of information about the performance of students in their various subjects. A compromise – from behind the security of the veil – must be made.

4. Won’t somebody please think of the children??

Flippant, but apt. Remember, you don’t know what role you are going to have. You might be a student who really struggles at school and, four times a year like clockwork, gets told that they are under target. Or that they are on target, but their target is a fail. Not so nice. I know I wouldn’t want to be that student.

5. Accountability

All roles in a school need, at some point, to be accountable for their performance. I don’t think many would disagree with that. I want to know that somebody is keeping an eye on me, and will haul me up if I do something wrong or stop performing. But one of the roles in a school is “teacher with tough classes” or “teacher who ends up with bottom sets” or “teacher who has inherited a class who know bugger all.” These, and any number of other types of teacher must surely invalidate the use of data as a performance metric. It’s just too complicated. There are too many variables – too many things outside of the teacher’s control.Even more so, I also might not be a teacher but the person looking at the data, at which point I want to know that it is uncorrupted and gives me information about student performance, not about how teachers are playing it safe so as not to provoke a passive aggressive email from their line manager or a request from on high to put in more interventions for students who routinely mess around in their classes. If accountability is desirable, but based on data will corrupt and become self-defeating, maybe find a different route to accountability?

6. Infernal inferences

Data is just a string of numbers: a test score, an average test score, a residual or whatever. You are using them to infer something about something. So you might use a low mock exam result to infer that a student did not do enough work for that mock. But what if the student’s dog died the day before? Or they worked, but their methods were ineffective? Or their teacher hadn’t adequately prepared them or this or that or any number of things. It can be a dangerous games making inferences, and none of us want to be in a role where we are making bad inferences or, perhaps worse, to be in a role where bad inferences are being made about us.

7. What’s next?

Similar to inferences is the role of action. What is going to be done about this data? Do you want to be a teacher who has to spend hours each year entering data from which nothing will actually be done? Doubt it.

8. Aggregation is the friend of reliability…

A phrase borrowed from Becky Allen, it’s an encouragement to think about how many data points your inferences are based on. In short, inferences from one test are not that reliable. Two tests: more reliable. More students, more tests = more reliable. As Becky points out, you don’t need an actual test for this. Any time a teacher looks at a student’s homework, or listens to their answers in class they are taking mental data on that student. All of that counts.

9. …but more crap tests will just give you crap data

So this is where curriculum and assessment comes in. What are your tests testing? Are they doing it well? In the past we used tests which weren’t well tied to what had been taught, had confusing questions or any number of other technical flaws. You don’t want to be a student sitting a test which doesn’t test what you learned, and you don’t want to be the teacher that wastes their, and their students time, like that. So if you are going to spend time on something, whatever your role, maybe just say “right no data drops this year, but everyone is going to give 15 hours of their time across the year to making sure the assessments they are using make sense.”

10. You’re all bright and sparkly now, but remember you could be me

At a conference a little while ago I saw a head of department presenting their incredibly complex and detailed RAG sheet for student mocks. They were all bright and sparkly and talking about all the wonderful things that they had learned from entering all that data and analysing the ace colour palette. Look, if you think the role you will take is that of a workaholic head of department who will martyr their Sundays on the altar of presenting shiny things at conferences and getting #pedagoo likes on Twitter that’s fine. But remember: you could end up being me. And I would rather shave my eyeballs with a rusty switchblade than fill out a rag sheet. Just something to think about.


That’s probably it for now. If anyone knows of some brilliant practice on this front or really interesting reading please do let me know.

The six best blogs I’ve read this year

I love reading education blogs, and this year has been a great year for it. There has been a ton of incredibly interesting stuff published, and I know that my practice has changed for the better because of it. I’ve narrowed down my list of “best” blogs as much as I can, and I’ve tried to limit it to blogs that are just so comprehensive as to feel like nothing else needs to be written on the topic. Because it wouldn’t be right not to, I have a couple of honourable mentions and bloggers to watch too. A little while ago I collected the blogs which influenced my development the most which you can find here. That list contains more of the “big hitters” and some blogs which are really part of an informal edu-twitter-blogosphere canon.

Happy reading!

Best blog of the year: E. Coli and Quality First Teaching by Ruth Walker

This blog will fundamentally change the way you think about teaching and student performance. I won’t spoil it: go forth and read.

Runners-up in no particular order

  • You may have noticed a little spat about silent corridors recently. As far as I am concerned, Clare Sealy’s blog on the topic represents the last word.
  • I really struggle to talk meaningfully about behaviour. On the one hand, I hold students completely responsible for their behaviour, but I also know that there are things I can do which can promote positive behaviours. Tom Sherrington’s post on the topic takes a pragmatic, sensible and actionable approach.
  • Dawn Cox’s blogs are always excellent. Grounded in evidence, immediately applicable and accepting of nothing but the best, I thought her blog about the need to radically re-evaluate revision culture was a message that needed to be said.
  • Though not technically one blog, Pritesh Raichura’s Writing in Science Symposium stimulated my pedagogical brain-buds to the extreme. Bursting with research and practical ideas, I came away from the symposium positively excited to try some new things.
  • Becky Allen is the best. Her speciality is slaying the data dragon, and whilst it’s difficult to point to one blog above all the others, I reckon this is the best place to start: would it really be so bad if we cannot measure progress?

Honourable mentions

Amy’s blog on what her school have done about performance related pay and teacher CPD is a paean to professional autonomy and empowerment. A must-read for any school leader thinking about CPD in their school.

I love Key Stage 3. Sadly, it is often second fiddle to older sibling Key Stage 4 (you know, the one with the high stakes accountability measures at the end of it). Rebecca Foster and Steve Lane both have cracking articles on how to make better use of this precious time.

I didn’t expect myself to fall in love with a blog about calligraphy, but Sarah Barker writes so brilliantly about learning, practice, effort and the highest of standards that you cannot help but let this blog hit home.

Bloggers to watch

Bill Wilkinson doesn’t blogged much, but his recent posts have been really great. Keep an eye on.

Damian Benney writes the blogger’s blog. Always immaculately researched and evaluated, they are a model of how to think hard about reflecting on practice.

Tom Norris is relatively new to the blogging scene but his post on teaching electricity was just gorgeous: a paradigm of how to explain a ridiculously difficult topic effortlessly.

Tom Needham has written a bunch of outstanding blogs about direct instruction and cognitive load theory. Brain food for the teacher who prizes explanation, sequencing and serious learning.

#CogSciSci – an introduction

#CogSciSci is a grassroots collective of science teachers who are interested in promoting the use of Cognitive Science in the teaching of science. No one really remembers exactly how it started and no one is “in charge.” Generally, we just aim to support each other, steal ideas, and become better teachers. We get a lot of people signing up so this blog is just a simple explainer about who we are and what we stand for.


  1. Cognitive Science
  2. Mailing group
  3. Events
  4. Blogroll
  5. Glossary
  6. People to follow on Twitter

1. Cognitive Science

Cognitive science (CS) is the study of thought and memory. It is a branch within psychology that seeks to understand how people’s minds work at a level distinct from neuroscience. It isn’t really interested in physical brain structures and neurons and suchlike; it’s more interested in the emergent properties of that physical structure, how we can conceptualise and utilise its processes.

For a really straightforward introduction to CS from an educational perspective, you should read:

For more “hands-on” applications, check out:

There is more and more great stuff being published on this all the time, and there is a more developed list here (which I am still updating at the moment). Founder Niki Kaiser has written a really excellent summary here of what a lot of us have been thinking about and trying to do which I really recommend.

2. Mailing group

We have a mailing group which is now upwards of 250 science teachers (and some others!). You can sign up by by filling out this form. All topics are up for grabs and we have had some amazingly helpful conversations. Feel free to jump straight in or just lurk for a bit. Introductions are also great and if you have a twitter handle or blog do let everyone know.

Generally there is loads of stuff that science teachers could talk about and in truth it’s all fair game but where possible try and bring a CS perspective to bear.

3. Events

We have now had a national get together two years in a row. The first year was in Norwich hosted by Niki Kaiser and the second one at Brunel University in London hosted by Andrew Carroll. Not only would it be great to see you at those events, but a lot of people said how nice it would be if we could have smaller regional meetings. Do let us know if you would be interested in hosting one of those.

Here is the reading list from our first conference and here are notes from Alex Weatherall and Niki Kaiser from our second conference.

4. Blogroll

There aren’t so many blogs out there focusing on CS in science teaching but the ones we know of are below. If we have missed any out please let us know! On each blog you should be able to pop your email address in and subscribe which is highly recommended so you don’t miss anything. 
Tom Chillimamp on Medium
Matt Benyohai on Medium
James Bullous on Medium

View at

5. Glossary

There are a few terms that we use quite a bit so I thought it might be helpful if I just make a little glossary. Let me know if there is anything else you think should go in there.

Bar Model: an instructional technique using bars to make quantitative information easier to grasp. Ben Rogers is one of the main teachers promoting the bar model and you can read about it here.

Cognitive Load: the burden placed on working memory by a given task. The reading at the top of the page has more information about this.

Domain General Skills: general thinking skills like creativity, critical thinking, problem solving, analysis and “working scientifically.” A lot of CS is about where these skills come from and to what extent they are dependent on domain knowledge. See here for an explainer.

Domain knowledge: a person’s knowledge of a particular domain e.g. mechanics, molecular biology, inorganic chemistry.

Dual Coding: the instructional technique of using visuals to support verbal explanations. See Pritesh’s work on this here.

Encoding: the process of embedding new information in long term memory

Epistemology: the study of knowledge. Within CS this refers to the rules which govern how knowledge is added to a particular domain. See cognitive scientist Paul Kirschner’s take on it here as applied to inquiry learning or my summary here.

Explicit Instruction: an approach to teaching that gives students all the information they need and does not rely on inquiry or discovery based approaches. See Greg Ashman’s explainer here.

Novices and experts: the idea that the cognitive architecture of a novice learner is fundamentally different to that of an expert learner. See also surface/deep structure and epistemology.

Retrieval Practice: an incredibly powerful tool for improving long term memory, RP is simply the act of quizzing someone. See here for a brief introduction or here for some more academic reading.

Schema: a complex interconnected web of information which exists inside the mind. There is a good explanation here and applied to science here and here.

Sequencing: this is how you design instruction to make sure that one concept leads effortlessly onto the next concept without confusing the student. See Pritesh’s big picture thinking here.

SLOP: Shed Loads of Practice. This is a code phrase for any time we have decided to make our own textbooks/worksheets which feature loads and loads of practice work for students to complete. See here and here for more.

Surface/deep structure: any problem has surface structure and deep structure. The surface are the particular details involved in the problem and the deep structure is the conceptual information required to solve it. The seminal reading on the topic is here

Threshold Concepts: a concept that must be grasped before another concept can be understood. Niki is the real expert on this and you can find all her material here.

Transfer: this is “application” in old money. It’s the ability to transfer your knowledge to new situations. This is an incredibly difficult thing to achieve, and actually some psychologists believe it is borderline impossible. See here for some more reading.

6. People to follow on Twitter

This list is almost laughably incomplete, and I hope to be able to update it as time goes on (or if someone else wants to do that job for me…). Every so often I will just search the CogSciSci hashtag on twitter, so if you want to connect with other CogSciSci people on twitter then use the hashtag!

Final word

We’re really, really keen to learn and support colleagues both near and far. Please don’t hesitate to get in touch and contribute – we would love to hear your voice. And if you think there is anything that belongs in this particular introduction throw me an email or drop a line in the comments.








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