How to make Evidence-Informed teaching work

In this post I’m presenting a conceptual model for how the teaching profession can reboot its relationship with scientific research into learning.

“…the simple truth is that, in education, everything works somewhere and nothing works everywhere.” – Dylan William – TES – 10th April 2015

“…Working out what works also means working out what we mean by ‘works’, and where science, heart and wisdom overlap and where they don’t….Evidence-based education is dead – Long live evidence-informed education.” – Tom Bennett – TES Blog 11th April 2015

Two frustrating truths:

  1. Science always seems able to measure ‘better’ or ‘worse’ ways to do things.
  2. Yet… Science cannot tell us the best way to teach.

Why is this the case?

  • Because the unique combination of a particular teacher, particular pupil and particular set of circumstances can result in an unpredictable outcome.
  • Because, metaphorically, we only focus on the “brightly lit corner” of the educational room. Ponder these two diagrams…
  • The limits of proven techniquesThe Sea of Modifiers

The first diagram shows just how limited we can ever be with trying to adopt guaranteed scientific strategies in teaching. The second one shows a similar thing – demonstrating the impossibility of ever being able to create a ‘best practice’ guide for dealing with any one individual

Another two frustrating truths to add in to ponder:

  1. Teachers ‘on the ground’ are the very best way to detect and intelligently respond to the unique individual educational needs of a child from moment to moment
  2. Yet… All people can be ignorant, naïve and deluded regarding what they perceive and what they think they are doing

So… how do we harness research to make things the ‘best’ that they can be…?

How things currently tend to happen:

  • We rely on headline summaries of research into concrete strategies… “Feedback is good”… “Homework is bad”…
  • Then we look for ‘silver bullet’ actions we can take which can be reliably rolled-out across all children in our class, or all classes in our school.

As Tom Bennett explains in his blog response to Dylan Wiliam’s article, the detail which would be of most use to teachers tends to be buried in “page 2,3 and beyond” of research papers, as these details give us the context which in practice mediates the effects – the overall average of which tends to be summarised in the headline.

So, for example, as Professor Wiliam points out, the effectiveness of ‘feedback’ to learners can rely entirely on the relationship between the teacher and the pupil; just giving feedback doesn’t guarantee a pupil will use it to move forward. Does this then mean we need scientific research to help teachers understand interpersonal relationships better – so as to map-out yet greater parameters for teachers to calculate? As someone who focused heavily on the ‘science’ of interpersonal relationships during their first degree, I’m relieved that Wiliam doesn’t think so. It isn’t more research that is required for the particular teacher, but a different relationship with the data. As he bluntly states… “The best way to become a more effective teaching body is to build and trust the ‘practical wisdom’ of teachers.” Drawing on Polanyi he adds “We can know more than we can tell”.  In other words, teachers possess tacit knowledge of a situation which could never be expressed fully by language, and certainly not by rubrics.

Okay – Sounds crowd-pleasing! Let teachers get on with it and trust their professional judgement etc. Well, sort of. There is still that nagging first truth that I started with – which is still there – that science can tell us what works better and what works worse, and my fourth truth – all people can be deluded.


Professor Wiliam’s general solution is to ensure teachers access a range of quality professional development opportunities, tailored to suit their particular needs.

Geoff Petty this week takes that further, laying out a comprehensive list of the different kinds of research that teachers could access, and the principles they should think about when viewing it. He particularly stresses the usefulness of teachers ‘triangulating’ between quantitative, qualitative and ‘field’ research (case studies).

Here I’m going to go further still and propose a conceptual framework which school leaders and individual teachers could use to better develop as an evidence-informed profession. This framework suggests:

  1. A shift to focusing on principles of practice, rather than headline strategies
  2. A shift from looking for isolated ‘silver bullets’ to comparing contextualised ‘golden glow’ areas of research and case studies.
  3. A move towards seeing genuinely useful individual techniques as ‘silver seeds’ of practice, which can grow into something personally powerful when adapted by the professional teacher.
  4. A shift towards empowering individual teachers as the ultimate arbiters of what goes on in their classroom, according to the process outlined in the table below.

The most powerful way of moving a learner forward is not the delivery of a strategy. It is the coherent, integrated, responsive, humanly authentic educational mechanism we call a teacher, and each one of these clever devices functions at their best in a unique way, seeing things through a combinatorial lens unlike any other.

As with Dylan Wiliam’s reference to Polanyi, ijstock has recently pondered the unique way in which a teacher experiences the learning process and interacts with the unobservable processes going on in children’s minds:

“Even the most dispassionate of scientists amongst us cannot escape the realities of the educational world: when we deal with (young) people, we are operating in the social and human domain, for which scientific approaches may just prove too technically precise; those soppy soft skills may actually be better… The inescapable fact is that the reference base-line is our own knowledge and experience of what it means to learn, as experienced by us and us alone… if we want to understand the nature of learning, we perhaps need to spend less time in conferences and webinars and more time looking inwards at our own experiences as successful learners.” How could we improve the blend between research and professional judgement-page-0 There are strong calls through the ResearchEd movement for more teacher-led research to go on in schools. Whilst I more than support that where it is feasible, I have a rather nuanced vision for how teachers should become involved in research:

  1. New teachers (and existing ones where possible) should be taught the key findings of cognitive psychology regarding how people learn (less so the developmental psychology theories which can never be used to go from the general to the particular)
  2. New teachers (and existing ones where possible) should also be inducted in the skills required to carry out systematic social science research. This is not so much so that they could embark on quantitative research projects which can be used to add to our global data-bank of statistical findings – I personally think that the art of doing unambiguous quantifiable research is demanding enough for professional researchers. Rather…
    • It will enable those who can to generate detailed in-house qualitative case studies which – without seeking to produce definitive recommendations in themselves – could add to a wider bank of resources which teachers could draw upon when attempting to triangulate their own approaches.
    • It will enable them to question more knowingly the scientific claims and fads which they can be confronted with throughout their careers, and help to immunise them against sweeping claims when it is announced that ‘it has been proven’.
    • It will enable them to gain the fullest benefit from their participation in the richest single source of research data available to them… their own personal careers. Of course, teachers already do gain wisdom from this day-to-day experience, but formal training in the practice of research would allow them to more carefully question their own perceptions of what goes on from lesson-to-lesson, and the various meanings which can be deduced from the efficacy – or otherwise – of their own practice.

What School of Rock REALLY taught us about education…

(This is the first in a new breed of shortStepping Back: Shooting from the hip‘ posts!)

Ok – orientate brains… after all, it’s only 12 years since School of Rock was released, and I’m not even trying to link it with British party politics. However, I saw it for the first time in years a couple of nights ago, and two things hit me in the face like a speeding white van which I’d never pondered before. It doesn’t matter if you haven’t seen it.

Basically, School of Rock has two MASSIVE learning points for teachers – and almost certainly they aren’t what most people would expect. [Look here for example – this post from 7 years ago pulls out 5 lessons teachers can learn from the film and there are some worthy points – finding ways to allow out talents which normally get ignored – giving teachers autonomy to teach how they want etc. Mostly though, it is of the ‘give them a relevant project and they will just naturally flourish’ type thing.]

However, my own two HUGE (well, pretty big) points are very different:

  • The main band members – if you like, the absolute core of the project, without whom it would have just been a pointless exercise – had all already developed well-honed, disciplined musical skills. They didn’t just have ‘talent’ – they had carefully acquired, knowledge-based technique, ready to expand on.
    • In other words – their eventual ‘breaking free creativity’ was able to feed on something which made it actually useful and really powerful, rather than just ‘expressive’
  • Secondly, they weren’t just inspired by the ‘set them free and let them go for it’ kind of rhetoric which some movies (and blogs) imply is all children need to become passionate geniuses. The success of the whole enterprise was built around the incredible knowledge and passion of their teacher (Jack Black). They had no interest in rebelling or trying something different (apart from the drummer – who actually kept referring to what Black was doing with them as ‘goofing off’). They were serious students and Black was only able to lead them into a new way of being because of his own intense vision of what great rock music and being in a band is like.

This wasn’t all there was to it of course – he did indeed try to find the best ways that individuals could be involved (because in that project they simply couldn’t all do the same thing) – and he worked hard on lesson plans and background theory. Even here though – this element totally fed off his intense personal knowledge and commitment to the area. He walked-the-walk magnificently, and was able to talk-the-talk convincingly.

What also didn’t seem far-stretched was the implication that opening up a person’s natural creativity doesn’t require you to have spent their whole education prioritising them being creative. The hard work is in getting the base knowledge and skills in place for them to feed on. Then a good teacher can press the right buttons to let their innate dispositions flow out.

How Progressivism cripples creativity, and how to stop Traditionalism from stifling it

I planned to write this post a few weeks ago, after my post Knowledge Vs Skills: Seeking a little wriggle room triggered some exchanges about creativity with Sue Cowley on Twitter [NOTE: The ideology I’m critiquing isn’t one to personally identify with her]

Ultimately I’m not interested in blogging unless I can take an idea forward, so I’ve taken my time to try to dig-deep into this. I truly believe the points I generate break new ground.

My basic points are:

  • The concept of creativity is critically confused in society and education
    • Personal – ‘Small c creativity’ – is not the same as Socio-Cultural  – ‘Big C Creativity.
    • Progressivism has two completely separate goals related to educating for creativity – personal fulfilment and societal salvation.
  • In the way it champions personal fulfilment with ‘Small c creativity’, Progressivism is actually crippling its potential to solve upcoming Socio-Cultural problems.
    • Through dismissing the need to master the knowledge domains of existing experts
    • Through the project of ‘personalisation’, which leads to…
      • A reduction in the potential for creative analogy-making
      • A reduction – rather than increase – in personal adaptability
      • An explosion in ‘creative noise’ at a societal level
  • Traditionalism can better achieve Socio-Cultural creativity with some simple ‘tweaks’.

My depiction of Progressivism may strike some people as a straw man based on their personal practical experience, but I think it presents a very real voice at the back of many sincere people’s minds; representing an ideal which they believe they should be aiming for if only they were freed from the demands of exam boards and statutory curricula.

What is creativity?

Let’s think. What do we count as creativity?

  • If a child is given some paint and freely dawbs on a piece of paper – are they being creative? Or rather just ‘expressive’, or ‘experimental’ ?
  • What if the same abstract ‘dawbings’ are in response to being told to paint a garden? Is ‘personal interpretation’ always being  creative?
  • What if the child explains, they were trying to copy – as best they could – a picture they’d seen? Is their ‘highly original’ painting creative… or merely a failure?
  • What if the child ‘creates’ a great painting by carefully using a ‘paint by numbers’ set? Have they created, or merely ‘made’?

Most infant teachers would probably group all the efforts of the child above in the category of them being creative (or learning to be creative).  What about the following two cases?

  • The adult individual who is able to adapt to constantly changing workplace demands, reinventing themselves several times during their career?
  • The inventor who comes-up with a completely new form of electrical storage, based on principles not normally considered in that industry?

Are these last two people creative? If so, what is their link with the first set of examples?

Psychologist Robert Sternberg points out that the lack of clear focus in psychological research on creativity comes from a muddled mix of societal ideas about it. As Keith Sawyer explains, creativity as we know it isn’t a scientific concept – it’s something culturally and historically specific, meaning different things in different contexts. He distinguishes between individual creativity and socio-cultural creativity.

Individual creativity – is what Sawyer and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi both  call ‘Small c creativity’ – something which occurs at the level of personal originality – something which is simply new for that person to come up with. The Socio-Cultural form of creativity however is what we might think of as something more game-changing – what they refer to as ‘Big C Creativity’. This is the kind which results in innovations for all of us.

Now, the human capacity for creativity is hard for any of us to dispute. Nevertheless, progressive educationalists sometimes slip into almost mystical assertions about where the building blocks of creativity originate from – suggesting that the answers to our problems are simply ready to be unleashed from the human mind if only we would allow them out. They worry – not unreasonably – that as we learn established knowledge structures, the less we are likely to experience and tolerate divergent – unconventional – thinking. Therefore we should cherish and try to keep open the apparently more fertile imagination of the child as actively as possible.

It is indeed true that in growing-up we learn to more quickly filter-out the less cogent random associations which arise in our minds – the ones seemingly less likely to go somewhere rational. I believe that children indulge them more than adults due to a lack of reasoning structures and experience rather than greater inherent creativity.

What has become the key definition of creativity for researchers – and Sir Ken Robinson – is that creativity is originality with value – or ‘applied imagination’ as Robinson puts it. It may well be that personal pleasure is sufficient value to be gained from the creative act, but he’s adamant that the two creative adults I outlined earlier are the kind we need to be educating for. Rapid population growth and the speed of technological transformation mean we’re hurtling into a world situation which may be beyond our current controls.

His solution is for us to produce creative individuals who can produce novel solutions to new global problems, as well as being able to adapt to a workplace of as yet unknown multiple job roles.

Now, my focus here isn’t the ‘Shift Happens’ side-line to this, asserting the need to teach transferable skills in place of fundamental knowledge to prepare people for the jobs that don’t exist yet. I think THIS gives one of the best answers to that.

No, I’m actually going to agree with Sir Ken, and say – YES, as a species we are going to need to be able to adapt creatively, more rapidly than ever before. We could indeed be hurtling towards a precipice we have no current control over, changing many certainties in our lives.


You see, Progressivism likes to align its methods as being the best way to achieve this fresh headline goal for education because it involves talk of the need for creativity, and it has always been keen on creativity for a completely different reason: Namely, that we should open up children to creative experiences because, whatever they want to do in life, the act of ‘creating’ in some way – just like the act of acquiring knowledge for traditionalists – is an intrinsically worthwhile form of human experience. I have no problem with this as a goal – I think it is a value worth having.

BUT… the fulfilment of the first goal requires ‘Big C Creativity’, whereas the second is satisfied with ‘Small c creativity’, and focusing on the second one the way progressive education does cripples the first.

Why? Based on my broad reading around the subject the criteria below could be said to represent the full requirements for reaching ‘Big C’ – game changing – Creativity:

  • The ability to think ‘divergently’ – going beyond the natural stream of thought.
  • The freedom to allow your personal expression out – not repressing it in the face of conventional opinion.
  • An intrinsic interest in pursuing novel solutions to a problem, rather than doing it because you are required to.
  • The mastery of a domain of knowledge which allows you to fully survey the range of existing approaches to it.
  • Sufficient grasp of contrasting domains of knowledge, in order to create fertile counterpoint perspectives to allow innovative creativity to occur in the first place (unless you believe in mystical sources to our creative insights)
  • The access to, and due respect from, a field of influential experts who can evaluate the quality of your creative insight and give it the approbation to allow it to succeed.

Well… The first three of these perfectly fit with the Progressive domain of education for creativity. But the second three actually come from the Traditionalist domain of education…

Ignoring the importance of domain knowledge

Here’s the first problem: Progressivism’s focus on nurturing the creative impulse – or “creative confidence” as Robinson calls it – only goes beyond the personal sphere if it is book-ended by two critical bands of knowledge:

  • Firstly, truly game changing insights arise from having the comprehensive knowledge to see the whole picture of the domain that you are operating within (as well as having unusual knowledge of usefully analogous areas for inspiration purposes)
  • Secondly, you can only get a breakthrough if you, and particularly influential others, are in a position to knowledgeably evaluate your innovation. Why should this idea be worth anything?

Progressivism mitigates against this happening because it shuns the acquisition of established domain knowledge in favour of ‘transferable skills’, reducing the opportunities to become real experts in a specific field. Just having the information skills to access lots of knowledge as and when it seems to be required simply isn’t the same thing as having spent years internalising knowledge and gaining intuitive mastery of a domain.

Progressive educationalists may struggle with this. Based on their traditional focus of enabling everyone to express their innate creative muse, they constantly bear witness to incredible, original demonstrations of the power of creativity. You don’t need a lifetime of training to be ground-breakingly creative!

Here’s the thing though: It is easier to witness ‘the ordinary person’ having creative inspiration in the arts than with – say – technology. In the case of visual art for instance, we are all constantly seeing a rich mixture of things in everyday life, and through the marvels of TV we can all gain an incredibly diverse tacit knowledge of visual concepts. Diverse musical notions are also easy for anyone to absorb in our modern world (and the technical means to bring new ideas to the attention of others is now much easier too), and even narrative ideas abound amongst the least cultured due to the ubiquity of story-telling on screen.

In the Arts in general then, it seems that pretty broad creative innovation can arise from almost anyone if they just have the technical capacity and opportunity to express it. In other professional areas however this is much harder to achieve – access to the richer knowledge base isn’t something which you naturally pick-up through walking down the street or watching TV. Additionally, in the Arts it’s generally easier to find someone who thinks your creativity is worth something to them. Your mate Bill might enjoy listening to you singing in the local pub, but he might not want to buy the new Smartphone you say you’ve just invented in your shed.

Now, so far all I’ve really done is reiterate the common criticism by traditionalists regarding the progressive focus on skills rather than knowledge.

But there are further, insidious sides to Progressivism’s pursuit of ‘personalisation’ which I believe are less obvious, but also ultimately damaging to ‘Big C Creativity’.

The closing down of potential for creative analogy-making

You see, Progressivism also acts to shut-down the potential for creative counter-point areas of knowledge to be acquired. In other words – the unexpected places that truly deep and original insights arise from. How? By striving from too early in life to personalise education to the strengths and interests of individuals and seeking to create the smoothest run into becoming the most naturally comfortable version of themselves. It does this as follows:

  • by seeking from the start to uncover a child’s ‘element’ – the thing that their natural passion and aptitude seems to indicate would be their most naturally satisfying success area through life . I think ideally we would all find our element – but after a nutritiously formative period of battling with and exploring what we feel disinclined towards.
  • by prioritising what is considered relevant to a child based on their professed interests and cultural background – in pursuit of pleasing ‘engagement’.
  • by attempting to teach them in the way that a child appears most inclined to enjoy – in pursuit of easy, trouble free learning.

Progressivism seeks to give people earliest access to the area where they may have the passion and aptitude to be their best. However as well as trivialising the deep knowledge which real specialists require, it also discards the wider awareness of contrasting fields of knowledge which characterises the great innovators in a field.

The knowledge areas which seem less relevant to children – less obviously appealing –  are the grains of sand which sit unused in the recesses of the mind slowly creating pearls. The whole point of creativity is that it is unexpected. If we just focus on the things that most obviously fit together for us, then we are unlikely to be surprised by a creative insight.

Divergent thinking properly takes us to new places when we’ve had divergent experiences.

The reduction of personal adaptability

I’ve spoken about transferable skills previously.  I think they do exist in two forms: If you learn about a field in depth, some aspects of what you’ve learned in that area will be applicable to pretty much any other human domain (once you know enough about that domain to spot the relevance). Also, there is a narrow slither of skills and dispositions which can be taught separately and be used flexibly. Their usefulness may only be marginal though.

For instance, the skills which Progressivism can give to people to help them become the adaptable workforce of the future are rather like saying you’ve trained people to be able to work successfully anywhere in the world by showing them how to get through airports and teaching them ‘please and thank-you’ in twelve languages. Handy, but not really the hallmarks of groundbreaking success. Oh, and it would have to be a place in the world that appeals to them. Progressivism works to produce individuals who are qualified to flit between the shallows of different domains, as long as it appeals to them. Are these the adaptable productive citizens of the future?

Ponder this: Irrespective of whether Learning Styles exist or not – I have always had problems with the assumption of teachers that a knowledge of learning styles should result in them aiming to teach a child through their preferred sensory domain. Surely we should use our ‘knowledge’ of learning styles to help strengthen the weaker faculties of a child – not collude in making them yet more limited?

Personalisation is broadly used to make things easier for a child – to get obstructions out of the way of them enjoying a smooth-flowing learning process. Aside from the obvious character development benefits to children of desirable difficulties, the experiences which go against the grain of the child also sow the seeds for the most interesting creativity later in life.

Ultimately, through easing children into doing what they most want to do, we actually make them less likely to be adaptable to an uncertain future workplace. Our precipitous future isn’t simply about undreamed of opportunity, it’s also about unpalatable, but essential, necessities. We’re creating a generation of children who are used to the world being adapted to their needs and choices, so that everything fits them better. What aspect of this is meant make them more able to cope with changing demands imposed on them?

Adaptable adults are those who have learned to take the rough with the smooth – to cope with necessity as well as opportunity.

The increase of creative noise

There’s more as well though… I pointed out before that real innovation in a field requires the knowledgeable appraisal of new ideas in order for them to be adopted and developed further. Progressivism even makes this less likely. How? By championing an unprecedented level of ‘creative noise’. The gatekeepers to real power in all kinds of knowledge domains have probably never been as bombarded as they are now by other people’s creative ideas. What I’m writing now could be a stroke of genius, but since anybody can set-up a blog to write thoughts about education (and we’re all widely encouraged to do it!), why should my own thoughts get noticed?

Let’s look at this general argument in a different way:

See below how Bloom’s taxonomy has been changed in recent years:

It has become the norm now to reword nouns with verbs and replace ‘synthesise’ with ‘creating’, moving it up above ‘evaluating’. So… when a child dawbs paint freely on some paper, they are exhibiting the most sophisticated form of thinking…?

The thing is, synthesising was above analysing for a reason. Newsnight presenters seem to find it easy to analyse and rip to shreds the arguments of politicians. It’s much harder however for them to create a brilliant new political strategy from the pieces left behind. It is indeed easier to distinguish the separate parts of a whole, than it is to visualise a previously un-thought of new whole from a given bunch of separate parts.

Of course, such synthesising should rightly be associated with the concept of creativity BUT not all creativity should be associated with synthesising.

And there’s more – take a look at the next revision of the taxonomy:

Now, hands up – what’s the problem with any pyramid of this kind? What if ‘remembering’ was replaced with ‘listening’ and ‘creating’ was replaced with ‘talking’? Like many teachers I give pupils the pithy advice “you have two ears and one mouth – listen twice as much as you talk”.

Given the access to information we now have – a wonderfully talented individual could become quite an expert in a field without having ‘chartered’ access to its traditional systems of power. They could indeed conceivably produce radically better ways of doing things. But no one will hear them, because everyone is creating, and no-one is seriously considering it all. There just isn’t the time.

Traditional education which fosters creativity

So having ripped into Progressivism for undermining ‘Big C Creativity’ and the production of adaptable workers of the future, what is my creative way to achieve this goal?

My prescription would be to give children a traditional education, which seeks to transmit the heart of what we culturally most value in what has previously been said and done, but with tweaks to ensure that open, inquiring, creative minds don’t become stifled.


Stick close to the knowledge  – that is what you are aiming to teach – not transferable creativity. However – there is ‘what’ you teach, and there is ‘how’ you teach it. Keep a constant awareness of the oblique learning that can occur through how you do things.

Now, the beautiful thing for progressives is that traditionalists now believe that you only really acquire knowledge if you actively think about it, and there is little which requires as much thought as trying to think creatively about areas of knowledge. Consequently, once you’ve presented your key knowledge area and gone through your process of choice to ensure it’s accurately understood, present pupils with challenges to creatively think about this work. You can do this constantly with questioning, discussion and paired talk without it needing a whole project.

Be astute of course – getting them to do a poster or a PowerPoint about it may involve no creative thinking whatsoever about the content of learning. It may purely be aesthetic creativity, which is missing the point.

However – more fundamentally, prime pupils with the three following pieces of conceptual knowledge and you will rarely be in danger of shutting down divergent thought:

  • Firstly – imbue them with the realisation that any area of human knowledge can be linked with any other area with a bit of creative thinking (a bit like 6 degrees of separation)
  • Secondly – point out to them that although knowledge is what we consider the most convincing and compelling version of the truth as we know it, any factual phenomena can logically be explained by more than one explanation and anything that we do can be done in a different way. The trick is to have good reasons to prefer a different version. In other words, there’s always more than one way to do, or to explain anything.
  • Thirdly – get them to grasp that we can never fully know the extent of what we don’t know.

If both teachers and pupils believe these three facts, why should any pupil ever lose their impulse to be creative?

Stripping the Ideology from Differentiation

This is quite a long post. I thought about doing a shorter companion one, but I’m just going to teach to the top!

In this post I want to tackle what could be described as an ethos of ‘aggressively pursued personalisation’ which I believe haunts the otherwise beneficial concept of ‘differentiation’, and through multiple ways actually harms educational outcomes. In the process I’ve tried to make my case rounded enough to be of use to those who feel troubled by such a situation in their school.

I want to be clear from the start however that this ISN’T a post against adapting lessons and teaching in order to…

  • ensure that persistent special educational needs are compensated for.
  • enable obstacles to be overcome by those who encounter them;
  • enable opportunities to arise for those who are ready to take them;

As you will see at the end, I do think we can have all of these things in a way which feels coherent, naturally powerful and manageable for teachers, and which creates the best long-term outcomes for our pupils.

To build this point I’m going to pull together multiple strands of thought about differentiation before proposing several additional ways of looking at the matter which I’ve not really seen elsewhere.

To start then…

I’ve recently rescued a tree which was being strangled by our front hedge. Ever since we moved here it’s looked a mess, and in the summer the separate parts are hard to distinguish. The hedge part is evergreen but the main tree isn’t, so I grabbed the opportunity to cut the hedge back while everything was more obvious. I’ve now realised what an excellent shape the main tree really has!

This is how I currently view the overall notion of differentiation, and by this I mean the following depiction (which you may consider a caricature) :

  • Above and beyond children with persistent Special Educational Needs, the fact that every child is unique means that in any mainstream classroom, even setted ones, you should be seeking to create 3 or more streams of differentiated activities and this should theoretically persist no matter how small your class gets. If you’re not doing this, then many of your children will not be learning as well as they could be.

The notion goes further than just this of course. As Sue Cowley puts it in the introduction to her “7 T’s of Practical Differentiation”:

“Children really do come in all shapes and sizes. When we talk about ‘difference’, we mean so much more than just different ability levels. The children in your class will have different cultural or social backgrounds, different levels of listening skills, different interests, different stages of written and spoken English, different kinds of motivation, different speeds of work, different maturity levels, different physical or psychological needs, and so on.”

What kind of heartless teachers wouldn’t aspire to take account of all this…?!

Now, I know I’m not alone in rarely feeling completely at ease with the implementation of this. It’s always managed to make me feel inadequate one way or another. Indeed, it almost feels like it is designed to make teachers feel inadequate – that there is always more that you could do if you were good enough – no matter how hard you try.

All over the internet and the publishing world are attempts to rescue teachers from differentiation angst – to make the whole thing seem a little more manageable. They all bring something of use, but even so…  I can’t escape the thought that there’s actually something fundamentally wrong with the dominant philosophy; something which has grown up so tightly amongst its branches that it seems invisible to us, but that – if we could just identify it and strip it out – then we could gain a guilt-free skip in our step and a genuinely fruitful pedagogy.

In getting to my suggested model, I’m going to consider

  • some general solutions offered to help struggling teachers within the mainstream ideology
  • some observations I’ve seen made in protest against it
  • some additional propositions which for me seem to fully clarify matters.


“Differentiation is just so hard to do properly – but I need to go with it –  it is the Holy Grail of good practice!”

Solution 1 – Get better at it!  The most hard line solution basically says “Yes… but that’s what being a great teacher involves – make it your priority and work at it!”

There is perhaps a tacit sense in some circles that great differentiation is like a martial art; something which is the pinnacle of teaching. I can easily imagine a school where teachers swagger through the saloon doors of the staffroom with their “7th Dan in Differentiation” badge on their chest and their “I once had 14 different activities on the go at once” mug waiting proudly on the shelf for them.

Practitioners such as Carol Tomlinson would swear that it genuinely can be done to a very high degree and that it is our duty to endeavour to do so. Then allied to this is the ‘gift-bag’ approach to helping us out with differentiation (see Mike Gershon’s “How to use differentiation in the classroom” as an example of this), which basically tries to equip us with enough ideas of activities to be able to generate the required amounts of differentiation without having to always create multiple levels within the same activity.

  • What I think is useful about all this is that it challenges us as teachers to continue to work at our professionalism and knowledge of teaching strategies and pupils rather than being complacent. I do think we should keep alive a thirst and drive for improved mastery, so the sentiment isn’t all bad – even if in this case I think it is misguided.

Solution 2 – Simplify your definition.  “Differentiation doesn’t really need to be as hard as you think it is. If you define it simply enough, then it becomes easier to get your head round.”

One approach here is to stop focusing on all the many things you could theoretically be doing (“Well, I have to ensure that there is extension and support and multiple forms of engagement, presentation of materials, relevance to the pupils… etc. etc.)  and look to the very heart of what you want to achieve. The following seems to have fruitfully caught on: “Differentiation is giving everyone hard work that they can do”. This manages to pithily include the idea of support and challenge for everyone and can be a clear anchor point.

  • I do like this approach – although, as you will see later, I think it can be refined slightly. Also, even with using this as a better starting point, teachers can still consequently run themselves ragged trying to chase up all the things they think should be included to make it come together.

Solution 3 – Adopt some ‘silver streak’ approaches to streamline things. “There are some key techniques which, if you can fully master them, can string together a lot of your differentiation work for you.”

A common one which ticks a lot of boxes for people is ‘choice’. If you build plenty of choice into your activities, then children can’t complain either that they couldn’t do things, or that they were bored.  Another one is ‘group work’, where people can naturally find their own positions. It seems to me that Sue Cowley’s 7 T’s book takes this approach – identifying key features in differentiation practice which can help string the whole thing together (although only those things which begin with ‘T’)

  • Again, I think this approach can be helpful – finding focus techniques to concentrate our differentiation efforts. I can certainly see the huge power of ‘choice’ for example, if used judiciously, as it helps with the engagement side too. But you’ve got to get the range of choice just right to make the challenge fruitful in intensity and direction – what I call “Goldilocks Zone Choice”.

Solution 4 – Realise that differentiation can happen over extended lessons. The reality is that much topic teaching, and indeed any powerful learning, requires multiple lessons and repeated exposure in a variety of forms. If you use a mixture of overlapping, contrasting activities over a period of time, then everyone gets a richer experience and sufficient routes can be created into a subject to accommodate a variety of needs.

  • With this vision, resources such as Mike Gershon’s volume of multiple activities start to become particularly useful. At first glance, some of the activities don’t seem like obvious differentiators in themselves to me. However, when strung together as a sequence, you can visualise different learners being accommodated.

Solution 5 – Shift the focus of how you could differentiate. “Teach to the top, support at the bottom”.

What if we reduce the three levels of differentiation to two? Instead of teaching to the middle, with extension and support opportunities, we could focus the teaching at the top end, ensuring that there is definitely enough challenge for everybody, and build-in support scaffolds to get everyone up to it.

  • Again, this simplifies the task of planning significantly, though it also requires buy-in to a unified set of learning goals for a given group, and not separate objectives (not a bad thing in my mind as you’ll see).



“Differentiation is just so hard to do properly – something’s not right – are we sure that we are thinking straight about this?”

Observation 1: You might actually progressively weaken children. By changing tasks to make them more ‘appropriate’ for individuals you might mistakenly deprive them of opportunities to succeed at challenges.

Matt Roberts vividly recalls a lesson where he’d planned reinforcement work for some children based on the previous lesson and not intended to involve them with the new stuff. He included them in the introduction to the harder stuff anyway, only to find that this follow-on concept made the previous stuff ‘click’.

  • Are we really being as omniscient as we think when we judge that a particular child – or a designated group of children – should be deprived of what the others are doing?

Observation 2: A difference is only a difference if it makes a difference! Do we overplay the differences between learners and underplay the similarities?

All children are like everyone else, somebody else and nobody else. If we’re going to make assumptions though, perhaps we’re on the safest ground assuming similarities, rather than going out on a limb regarding the significance of their differences.

As David Didau said in the comments section of one of his posts about differentiation:  “People are much more similar than they are different. Emphasising difference leads us away from those universal principles that apply to all the rarest outliers.

  • This starts to get to the heart of my concerns with ‘aggressively pursued personalisation’. We actively seek to spot and bring to the fore differences between children, perhaps creating self-fulfilling prophecies in the process.

Observation 3: The best differentiation is done in the teacher’s head. In all the ways we act and react to pupils we are constantly differentiating as we deliver a lesson (if we know our children pretty well).

Andy Day makes a strong point of how this best works: “It’s having as wide a range of possible techniques, strategies and organisational options; knowing the students’ individual traits, characteristics and needs; and making perceptive judgements about what will work, for whom, in what context, to achieve that end.”

A corollary here worth remembering for lesson monitoring purposes is the fact that trying to make differentiation visible for an outside observer, particularly in your planning, is something separate from actually differentiating.

  • Linking this with the previous observation: The planning element of differentiation should focus on preparing the ground for differentiation to take place as the need arises, NOT necessarily planning ahead when and to whom the differentiation will apply.

Observation 4: Differentiation actually doesn’t work anyway…  As Harry Webb pointed out in January on his now sadly closed-down blog, there is no actual research evidence that differentiation improves outcomes.

Now, Harry did point out that it’s hard to research differentiation accurately at the classroom level due to confounding variables, but then pointed to PISA Maths results which suggest that school systems which promote differentiation more highly as a principle, actually do slightly worse than systems which don’t…

In a more personal vein Matt Roberts observes that in all the supply work that he’s done, where he doesn’t plan any differentiation, the children all seem to rise to things remarkably well.

But… how can this be? Surely by paying the most attention we can to individual needs we should be educating children better? Is it just possible that the ideology that we should focus as much as possible on personal differences actually undermines education at least as much as it furthers it?


I have a hypothesis that differentiation improves teaching up to a point, but if aggressively pursued, actually harms longer term outcomes.

It looks like this:


My basic opinion is that the persistent striving to teach children as individually as possible is flawed. Here are four key reasons why I think this is the case:

Proposition 1: We don’t really know what we’re doing.

Our actual understanding of how to engineer long-term educational success for a particular individual is fuzzy on multiple levels:

  • We can’t exactly predict what the best long-term educational outcomes will be for any individual. Aged 43 now, I’ve got a reasonable sense of what could be the best outcomes for me in my life, but when I’m 60 I might view things very differently. “Good luck? Bad luck? Who knows?”
  • Having fuzzily conceived the long-term goals for our individual, we can’t prescribe with real precision what the best string of learning experiences will be to achieve them. What were the key elements which have made me who I am now…? With every passing year I look back with a different perspective.
  • Again, having fuzzily arrived at some idea of desirable learning experiences, we can’t for certain know what learning objectives will cause these experiences to arise for any specific individual. What were the key decisions which brought about my key learning experiences…? Mine? Someone else’s? Circumstantial?
  • Also – in weighing-up the state of any individual pupil as they are now – we can’t accurately judge, in a given instance, just how their unique life circumstances prior to this moment have primed them for the best next step, and how they will respond to a new day and a new lesson. I keep finding myself surprised with how I myself respond to things on a day to day basis, so why should someone else be more certain?

Now, it could be argued that I’ve just undermined any point in trying to make any decision to teach anybody anything! Not at all – as I’ll explain a bit later – but I have attempted to undermine the notion that in the grand scheme of things, we could consistently plot distinct differences in the educational paths of individual students, and expect this to represent wisdom.

Of course sometimes the situation is far clearer than others, hence why my hypothesised graph shows an improvement in the initial stages of differentiation.  There are situations where you can make a pretty good judgement, in advance of a lesson, how a child or group of children would benefit from a different kind of provision to the rest. This might either be due to the stand-out needs of the children being more extreme, or because the educational priorities had been made much clearer due to impending exams etc.

Proposition 2: Too much personalisation undermines positive aspects of the “hidden curriculum”

Elsewhere I’ve written about needing to educate for the World of Necessity as well as the World of Opportunity. Unintentionally, the active pursuit of personalisation works to strip incidental adversity from the educational lives of pupils. In the process of doing so, this arguably undermines their development as emotionally resilient human beings.

The prominent calls recently to actively teach character in UK schools are interesting. It’s as if all the ‘fibre’ has been stripped out of the educational diet in our efforts to make ‘processed carb’ learning objectives which gain rapid entry to the intellectual bloodstream. All our efforts to bend the curriculum to meet the child where they are, so as to make for easy engagement and agreeable learning objectives effectively prime children for a life which doesn’t exist in the wider world.

We cannot ignore the possibly vital conditioning for the necessities of life which can be provided by children sometimes feeling out of their depth, needing to struggle, being treated as just one of many, and even feeling bored and needing to generate their own line of interest in a subject area.

Perhaps then, my biggest reservation about the ‘giving all learners hard work that they can do’ definition of differentiation is that, sometimes, not being able to do something might be the route to the most important long-term learning.

Proposition 3: Teachers teach best with a singular focus

Teachers teach most inspiringly when they know and love their subject and have an uncompromised, favoured channel down which to lead their students. They instinctively sense their personally strongest way of bringing concepts alive and should initially come at planning lessons with this perspective high in their minds.

Along the planning route, they need to then see clearly the possible obstacles to a pupil coming with them on this preferred journey, and the expanding opportunities which could be offered to pupils along the way, but if they are routinely expected to plan a mixture of channels, then their most instinctively powerful teaching will be compromised.

Proposition 4: Pupils prefer to learn as part of the group.

Sometimes children like to be different. Most commonly though, in mainstream classroom situations, they feel more comfortable and work better when they are ‘part of the pack’. As a matter of principle then, only treat them differently if both the administrative and emotional downside of doing so is clearly more than compensated for by their longer-term learning outcomes.


In my opinion, there are fundamental flaws with the idea that the more we seek to personalise schooling then the better we educate our children. Nevertheless, this idea seems to exert a stranglehold on the otherwise important concept of differentiation, and push it beyond being a learning enhancer into being a stressful pressure on teachers of dubious educational benefit.

In actively seeking-out individual differences between children for the sake of supposedly essential differentiated instruction:

  • we overestimate the importance of natural differences
  • we underplay fundamental similarities
  • we potentially actually widen gaps between people by focusing on what separates them
  • we overestimate our power to precision-plot the educational development of individual children
  • we create additional workload for teachers
  • we fragment the most powerful tools in a teacher’s pedagogical armoury

In light of the above, below is my 10-Step recommended process for how teachers should (most commonly) go about planning for differentiated lesson design (These steps don’t make for a succinct mantra –  but that isn’t the purpose on this occasion)

  1. Establish the most powerful learning objectives to achieve the goals of your programme of study.
  2. Use your knowledge of the subject to settle on what you consider the most naturally inspiring and effective ways of getting learners to achieve those objectives.
  3. Ensure that the route to overall mastery of the learning area includes multiple forms of exposure to, and engagement with, the subject matter, for every learner, over a period of time.
  4. Identify flexible opportunities along this route for any learners to extend their learning and degree of challenge.
  5. Using your knowledge of the subject and the learners in question, anticipate what obstacles could get in the way of reaching those objectives.
  6. Instigate means to ensure full access to your lesson for learners with stable, identified special educational needs, but aim to keep the ‘pack’ together.
  7. Plan the forms of general support which could be utilised by any learner to overcome obstacles if and when they arise.
  8. Approach every lesson prepared to create the best whole-group forward momentum towards your goals.
  9. In lessons, use knowledgeable and flexible teaching techniques to ensure that all pupils engage in beneficial challenge, in pursuit of your common goal, smoothly accessing support and opportunities as it becomes appropriate.
  10. If short-term learning gains are not apparent for pupils, ensure that they can embrace a sense of the challenges which they have engaged with, and the potential long-term educational benefit which they can derive from this.

Knowledge Vs Skills: Seeking a little wiggle room

I’ve written this post as a contribution to the Feb 2015 #blogsync topic of ‘Knowledge Vs Skills’ (posted just in time!)

The ‘Knowledge Vs Skills’ debate is real. You may not have been aware of it, and it might be true, as Tom Sherrington contends, that in most classrooms teachers don’t really swing one way or another; but it is there, in the background.

You can find it all over the internet, with ‘Ed-tech’ spheres tending to the skills side of the debate, and ‘traditionalist’ blogs championing knowledge. I personally have inhabited the mentality of both extremes in my time, and tried to influence others accordingly, so it’s real. If only in me.

For those of you unfamiliar, I will attempt a dangerously simple summary of the positions:

Skills Side:          Real success in life comes from acting with ‘skill’. Rapid and unpredictable 21st Century societal evolution means that a more flexible set of skills is required for success than ever before. Information is now generated at frightening rates so teaching knowledge is futile. We should teach higher-order thinking skills and the ability to find knowledge slickly, as and when it is needed.

Knowledge Side:             Truly skilful behaviour emerges from repeated, thoughtful exposure to large amounts of relevant knowledge – in whatever form. A skill which grows out of one knowledge domain cannot simply be transplanted into another. Knowledge breeds knowledge and those who have more are better positioned to gain further more still. Hardly any of the knowledge which you or I were taught at school is now ‘out of date’ or irrelevant; and the explosion of information on the internet changes little in terms of fundamental truths about human thought and existence. To successfully ‘Google’ knowledge requires you to know what you’re looking for, what you’re looking at, and where that fits in amongst other knowledge. You can only actually thoughtfully manipulate, analyse and evaluate this knowledge once it is in your head alongside any other relevant knowledge.

One of the darlings of the 21st Century Skills movement is ‘creativity’, and I think this parody gets to the heart of how shallowly it is bandied around! Crucially I think – and this is my favourite bit of the knowledge side – real creativity is the spawn of arcane knowledge. You know all those useless bits of knowledge which you get taught at school? Which you wrestled with and which you now can’t remember because it has ceased to be relevant? That is the root source of all your most brilliantly creative intuitive breakthroughs (the things which Ken Robinson would have you believe emerge if we simply let kids breathe a little). Creative, intuitive insight arises from the subconscious brain associating disparate knowledge you wouldn’t consciously choose to put together.

You can probably assume from this last bit which side of the argument I now rest on.

BUT, but, but but but….. Isn’t there something just SO beguiling about the skills side that there has to be something to it? My grandma used to refer to people who “knew the cost of everything but the value of nothing…” Why are the winners of Mastermind or Egg Heads etc not the richest/ most powerful people on Earth if they are so knowledgeable? CLEARLY just having knowledge isn’t the same as acting skilfully, and surely we experience in our daily lives how people at the top of their ladders seem able to turn that skillfulness pretty successfully to all sorts of things?

Well, one simple answer to these points is that knowledge has to be worked on to turn it into understanding, and understanding has to be worked on to turn it into useful forms of action, and useful action has to be worked on to turn it into skilful behaviour. So it is clearly true that knowledge of pure ‘facts’ doesn’t breed skilful behaviour in itself.

And perhaps this is where we reach the most murky, confusing part of this debate, because I think there is a dangerous miscommunication of we really mean by *knowledge*, and what we really mean by *skill*?

For a start, ‘skill’ is sometimes used to simply describe something you can do. ‘I can count sheep’. But it is also used to imply something you do well. “Skillful behaviour”.

It seems to be this second area which is the focus of Daisy Christodoulou’s chapter on transferable skills in her pivotal “7 Myths…” book. She focuses on the transfer of expertise from one domain to another, drawing on Herb Simon’s investigations into what leads to top flight skill in playing chess (a huge store-house of memories of strategies which work from different positions, rather than the ability to actually think through the strategies themselves).

Essentially, it takes a huge amount of relevant experience (i.e. knowledge building) to become an expert in anything. There really is no short-cut to becoming an expert. So you can’t simply teach ‘expertise’ as a discrete end point. I trained for a while as an Air Force pilot. I would have liked it at the time if they had just been able to say – “Right, we want you to be the best of the best, so we’re going to cut to the chase, and simply teach you to do that final dog-fight sequence which Maverick pulls off in Top Gun”. But it simply doesn’t work like that.

Linked to this, we couldn’t simply stick Lewis Hamilton in a Typhoon jet and ask him to win a dog-fight. He F1 racing might indeed indicate that he would have the ‘Right Stuff’, but he’s still going to have to go through the full process of learning a completely different way of demonstrating it.

Hang-on though… I saw that programme where Gerry Robinson, formerly a very successful CEO of Granada Television, apparently ‘fixed’ the NHS (well, waiting-list problems in Rotherham General Hospital). Surely it would take years of learning about how the NHS works to be able to become an expert in how to make it work better? Well, no. Robinson’s ‘transferable’ expertise were in the realm of people management. He essentially enabled the people working in the hospital at the time to have a more productive working dynamic. He didn’t become an expert in large-scale healthcare.

As Dan Willingham points out, whilst it looks like top thinkers are simply good at analysing, synthesising, evaluating and applying ‘critical thinking skills’, how these different skills work in different domains is not only variable, it is intrinsically linked to the ‘deep structure’ of those domains. Essentially, being able to use higher-order thinking skills in a particular domain is an emergent property of a thorough understanding of that domain.

What can be developed and evenly applied to different domains are what he calls ‘metacognitive strategies’; if you like, simple habitual mental dispositions to approach thinking about things in certain ways, but these can only be of real use once the full deeper structure of a domain becomes understood by you.

An analogy which comes to mind would be that of learning lots of music theory. I won’t be now able to play any instrument up to a high level. Also, if I become an expert trombone player, I won’t be able to now play the violin to an expert level as well, even if my knowledge of music theory encompasses both instruments perfectly. The music theory will certainly assist in the learning of the instruments, but I’ve still got to go through the experience of learning to really know what it takes to play them with skill.

But this still isn’t everything that we think about regarding ‘skill’… there are simple, everyday procedures which we also think of as being skills, even though they are really just ‘knowledge-bred behavioural routines’ (my terminology!)

For example, the skill of counting sheep can simply be described as ‘know-how’ – a result of integrating various bits of ‘know-that’ knowledge into a behaviour. I know that a certain object is a sheep. I have had the cumulative principle pointed out to me. I have learntthe names of the numbers. I can put them together and know that the process of doing this is called ‘counting sheep’. Great! I can put ‘counting sheep’ down as a skill on my CV (it’s one of my more significant skills!)

Wait – hang on… surely if this is indeed a skill, then actually I have been taught a ‘transferrable skill’? Because if I can count sheep, then surely I can count pigs? All I need is a simple concept of an ‘object’ and then I’m away – I could count anything! Well, maybe not everything. Maybe not syllogisms, or ‘Munros’ or netball fouls. I would need whole new sets of knowledge to be able to go out and count them…

But as long as the key concept of a ‘discernibly discrete entity’ finds a meaningful thing to attach itself to, then I can count anything… hmm… doesn’t this count as a meaningful transferable skill…?

In practice, the more I think about these areas then the more certain truths seem clear to me:

  • You can’t teach skills separately from a knowledge base. It may seem that I can learn how to solve quadratic equations as a purely theoretical exercise, but my ability to do that links back in a chain to basic, foundational, concrete experiences of number.
  • ‘Bottom level’ skills – i.e. ‘know-how’ (or procedural knowledge) only really transfers to other domains in as much as the key relevant characteristics remain the same (and presumably we need to have found out that the key characteristics are the same)
  • ‘Metacognitive strategies’, such as isolated approaches to critical thinking, ultimately only give us a way of approaching an area, not a way into the heart of them on their own.


I think I can give derive some clear principles to take in the other direction:

  • Firstly… ‘metacognitive strategies’ still should be installed in the minds of learners however you might manage to do it, and made habitual where possible. They are the magic dust which can turn a pile of knowledge into something special.
  • Secondly… ‘Bottom level procedural routines’ (or whatever you want to call simple skills) should be taught as soon as someone is capable of learning them for three key reasons:
  1. We memorise and integrate knowledge through thinking about it, and we are most likely to think about it if we are attempting to apply it in some practical way.
  2. Many ‘knowledgeable routines’ and ‘metacognitive strategies’ are knowledge multipliers. In olden times (pun intended), investing time in dictionary skills paid back many times over in terms of time saved searching through alphabetical-order data-bases, and the ability to gain access to relevant knowledge. Similarly, information literacy skills, or reading strategies DO help learners get more out of their researching and reading.
  3. Any ‘skill’ which we learn may only be directly transferable to a very narrow spectrum of activities. BUT elements of it may transfer to a much larger number of activities, reducing the amount which needs to be mastered in those areas. For example, the key physical skills of soccer and hockey may seem very different. One uses the feet, one uses the hands. However, someone who has become an expert soccer player is likely to achieve an expert level in hockey quicker than someone who is an expert gymnast. Both of them are likely to be physically fit, but the type of fitness that the football player has will be more suited to playing hockey, and, more importantly, their tacit understanding of ‘attack and defence’ games will lead to a strong strategic game sense (creating space when you’ve got the ball, closing down space when you’re defending etc.) One of the things I like most when teaching a child times-tables is showing them how each time they learn a particular set, they have proportionally reduced what is left to be learnt of each of the other tables. I believe that skill learning really does work in this way.

I remember Douglas Archibald, the Director of the Whole Education network describing knowledge and skills as ‘warp and weft’. The best education for our children really should try to weave them together as closely as is cognitively possible throughout their educational lives. If we have gifted our children with a few pieces of knowledge, get them to engage with it, by manipulating it in some way.

I know that the ‘knowledge’ side to the ‘knowledge vs skills’ debate is in some sense reacting against a certain naiveté of the 21st Century Skills movement, which has actually been around for centuries in different guises. Nevertheless, perhaps one of the reasons it keeps coming back is a tendency on the traditionalist side to retreat into ‘knowledge is all’ reductionist positions which seem to imply a dismissal of any notion of ‘skills’ being things which we can directly nurture in children.

Perhaps the binary language of *knowledge* and *skills* is ultimately at fault. Perhaps we need a completely fresh way of talking about this area which better identifies the constructs and dynamics involved in learning. Until then however, I suspect that the see-saw is just going to keep on going.

Beyond the Cult of Engagement – Part 3 – Top Level Engagement

In the first post of this three-part blog, I sought to identify weaknesses with the way in which the concept of pupil ‘engagement’ is talked about and used in schools. In the second part, I produced a hierarchical framework intended to organise classroom engagement methods according to what I consider to be their long-term worth. In doing this I distinguished between Engagement Tablewhether their locus of motivation was intrinsic or extrinsic, and also as to whether they prepared children for the respective worlds of Necessity, Opportunity, or Experience.

In this final post I wish to go into some detail regarding what I have portrayed as the highest level of engagement methods, and called ‘Level 4’ in my hierarchy.

If you need a reminder of the taxonomy, click on the image to the right:

A detailed discussion about Level 4

At this level, pupils are effectively doing what they want to do once more, but not because they are being ‘pandered to’. They are caught-up in the intrinsic process of learning and working towards something, and find it a self-motivating experience. Once the taste of this has been acquired by pupils, it will provide the bedrock for them to become lifelong lovers of learning, knowledge and mastery for its own sake, and to be ripe for making the most of the Worlds of Opportunity and Experience. Whilst some children seemed naturally ‘wired’ in this way in the first place, most of them aren’t, but teachers can expose them to key experiences which “ignite the burners” so to speak.

Recent books such as Engaging Learners by Andy Griffith and Mark Burns have started to point the way towards this level of engagement, although to my mind they have still mixed-in a hub-bub of engagement techniques without distinguishing the relative value of some of them as I have tried to do over the course of this post. The ultimate goal in Engaging Learners is to try to get pupils into a state of flow, with the assumption that the more this happens, the more children will crave the experience of purposeful learning. I think that this is certainly likely to have a beneficial effect on children’s attitudes to learning, but I would seek to also build-in other high-level intrinsic engagement mechanisms to try to reinforce the long-term ‘autotelic’ toolkit which we gift to the children.

So, my aim, slightly different to Griffiths’ and Burns’, is that the methods we use to help get children engaged at this highest level are all things which leave them with the ability and motivation to keep going without us, and without them simply seeking to take the path of least resistance around areas of challenge, which the lowest levels of engagement methods tend to foster.

I’m going to start by talking a bit about flow, so as to demonstrate why we need more tools at our disposal.

Flow – Peak Experiences of Human Engagement

Most people reading this post will probably have come across the concept of flow by now, as it has rapidly grown in popularity, much as Dweck’s mindsets theory has. The label is 25 years old now, having been coined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi to describe the experience we have when fully caught up with autotelic activities (activities where the experience of doing them is reward in itself). If you haven’t actually read the book Flow itself, then I would heartily recommend it to you, as it paints a far richer picture of human functioning and motivation than you will get from summaries of the theory.

For flow to occur there needs to be a balance between the skills that we have and the challenge that we face, but there also need to be a few more ingredients…

For a start, we need to actually want to be doing the activities. If we’re being compelled, or we just aren’t that interested, then we won’t get fully engaged, even if the match between the challenge and our skills is perfect.

Secondly, we need to have an undivided attention; the challenge which we are caught-up in needs to be singular, with the route ahead apparent to us, and ready feedback available on our progress. It also seems, according to Csikszentmihalyi, that we need to feel undistracted by niggling thoughts in other directions, which can include doubts about our competence, about whether this is the best thing to be doing at this time, about how our reputation might be effected by our performance etc. Basically, we need to have what he calls ‘ordered consciousness’.

Ultimately, it’s possible that pupils could get flow from just about any part of the school day if the conditions were just right, but realistically it is only going to happen sporadically, and in terms of ‘engineered’ situations, only during certain phases of the learning process. Interestingly, I think it is most likely to happen in schools in activities which are both highly structured but also ‘free’ (more about this at the end).

So, my belief is that there are other things we need to do if we want to fully ignite the joy of learning about, and working away at, just about any area of knowledge and skill.

Stimulating Curiosity

The first of the other areas where I believe we can make an active, lasting difference is in the stimulation and cultivation of curiosity. This has the potential to engage children into a subject area before they are at a stage of experiencing flow.

Now, of course, teachers have gone on about this for years, but generally by bemoaning the lack of it in modern children, as well as the apparent likelihood that it is something innate which you can’t really teach.

My thoughts on this were opened-up quite a lot by Annie Murphy-Paul a couple of years ago who drew on a mixture of sources to give an idea how we can go about stimulating curiosity other than by the massive sensory overstimulation which tends to happen with Level 1 engagement techniques. Here I’m going to draw on her synthesis but rebuild it in my own fashion. For the sake of brevity though, I’m not going to labour which bit is me, and which bit was her and her sources! (you can work it out by following the links if interested)

So – techniques for stimulating curiosity:

  1. Pose questions rather than make statements. Humans seem wired to tune-in more to questions than statements, and if you ask enough of them, it becomes habit forming in the minds of children to start asking their own.
  2. Draw attention to some knowledge areas which pupils already have, which seem unrelated to them, but which are actually are linked. Make them aware of the gap in their knowledge which is the link between the two areas. The idea here is that we only really experience curiosity when presented with areas that we already know something about. Once our attention is drawn to a missing piece in the puzzle, then we start to feel the itch of curiosity. QI does this all the time when posing its questions… something like “Why might King Henry XIII be said to have had the first X-box?”. We hear that, we know about King Henry XIII, we know about X-boxes, we know that there shouldn’t be any link between them, and we are hooked… (incidentally, I just randomly made this up, but if you can creatively think of any link between them, you are welcome post it in the replies section). A really key thing is that we don’t get the curiosity itch about things we don’t really know anything about – the cognitive gap is just too big. It is only in the creases of our existing knowledge. This is a massive advert for the benefits of a knowledge rich education, as it is a particular variant of the Matthew Effect. The more things we know, the more things we are likely to be curious about.
  3. If children don’t have enough particularly relevant knowledge to get to where you really need to be starting, then, yes, you could ‘prime the pump’ or ‘frontload’ with some eye-catching facts using a simple Level 2 engagement technique! The beginnings of a topic are probably the best time to use such approaches.
  4. Zooming-In and Zooming-Out. This might be called something else by other people, but this is what I personally call in. I’ve based it on a theory I have that if you look closely enough at anything, or step back far enough from it, then you can find a level of resolution whereby you find it interesting. In essence you are finding the resolution at which it seems to fit into an appropriately sized natural gap in your knowledge. I think I will try to write more about this another time, as it’s an area I feel has a lot of potential, both for getting children engaged, but also as a technique they can use themselves. I personally find myself using if I am stuck when talking to someone who it seems at first glance I don’t have anything particularly in common with. Having established some kind of basic credentials about them, I try to think of ‘close-up’ practical characteristics or implications of having the kind of job or interests that they have, or zoom-out to a level at which their experiences could be seen to overlap with mine. Csikszentmihalyi relates how people in highly constrained situations (such as prison) start to focus-in and find interest in very subtle features of their surroundings, asking questions which they’d never normally be bored-enough to ask. This, I think, relates to what I’m suggesting.

There is quite a lot then that we can work with here to motivate children to want to look closer and find out more about areas we would like them to learn about, and perhaps bring them closer to where they can start to experience ‘flow’.

Bridging the gap of Liminality

So, we know that we can hook children into a subject area by stimulating authentic interest in it, and we know that once they’re up and running with a specific challenge then we can hope to shape circumstances such that they will experience ‘flow’.

However, Martin Robinson has recently blogged about the twilight zone which we as teachers lead pupils into (well, he worded it more poetically). The bottom line is that a lot of real learning is hard work, and the path to ‘getting it’ can be downright uncomfortable. Essential there is a liminal state in learning, particularly when trying to make a breakthrough with threshold concepts, where we have dismantled the order of things which had been our previous secure understanding , but we haven’t yet gained sufficient mastery over the new way of looking at things in order to have a new, secure psychological structure in place. The point is that people tend to find this intrinsically uncomfortable, and children are instinctively likely to want to wriggle away from it and disengage.

How should this liminal gap be made passable? Well, this is one of those areas where, as an adult, we would rely on the Level 3 mechanisms which we had mastered in order to cope with the World of Necessity. In other words, we would draw on our natural grit to dig-in in the pursuit of long term goals which we want to achieve. This is fine, and we can work with this pushing the children with motivational exhortations to keep going.

However, I think that we have other options available to us. Griffiths and Burns in their book Teaching Backwards, draw attention to the use some teachers make of the metaphor of ‘The Pit’  (coined by James Nottingham). With this, they encourage children to picture times of ‘not getting it’ as a necessary phase to getting to an eventual better place, and one way or another, probably combined with growth mindset style coaching, they get them to wrestle their way through The Pit.

I think that this is a very good way of drawing attention tothe special role that teachers do have in enabling learning to take place, and the higher the quality of the ‘guide on the side’ motivational coaching skills that we possess, then unarguably the more ability we have to get children to push on. I certainly imagine as well that the more times children experience having struggled but having then prevailed due to persisting, then the more habitual the process of pushing through difficulties will become.

However, I want to throw in one more idea of how we as teachers can play a special role in motivating the pupils to push on during states of liminality, and that is through contagion.

Contagion… what do I mean by that? I mean, that, when we teachers are at our best, we exhibit an obvious delight in the intrinsic, autotelic value of the subject area we are teaching, as well as in the process of learning itself. And when we are at our best, we also have open between us and our pupils an interpersonal channel that allows our own enthusiasms to flow freely across into them as well. And so, my proposition is that when we are at a very best, the children are so ignited by the sense of delight that we exude that they think “I want some of that… I’m pushing on with this!”

Finally… Goldilocks Zone Autonomy

The final ingredient which I will add to the Level 4 engagement methods band is what I’m calling Goldilocks Zone Autonomy.

This is a concept which I think I will explore in more detail in another post, and it’s one that I am putting here with caution.

There is no doubt, in reading Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, and Daniel Pink’s Drive that a key ingredient in human peak performance and peak experience is a sense of autonomy. Experiences of flow are opted into. The finest creative insights are done when people are freely playing around with an idea because they have an intrinsic interest, and not because of carrots and sticks. People are most curious about the things that they are naturally interested in.

Consequently, if we really want our Level 4 engagement techniques to take hold and for pupils to become passionate about subject areas, the quest for knowledge, and the very enterprise of

Beyond the Cult of Engagement – Part 2 – A Hierarchy of Engagement Methods

In the first part of this three-part post, I identified problems with the concept of engagement as it seems to me to be widely used in modern schooling culture. Simply put, attempts to engage often misdirect children from actual quality learning, and in the process trick teachers into thinking that they are doing a good job.

An additional idea that I am proposing is that habitual use of certain ways of gaining engagement will also condition children for their future lives, and this could be in an enabling or disabling way.

In the table that follows and the explanations below I am going to present a hierarchical taxonomy of ways of gaining children’s attention and sustained engagement. I am going to leave my explanation of Level 4 for the final part of this blog, as I want to go into some detail regarding the things which I have included in there.

Based on my proposition about how we prepare children for life, I consider the upper 2 levels to be the zones we should strive to make most use of, but I’m realistic that there are many occasions when we have no choice but to make do with the lower ones. Whilst I have placed the Level 4 band as the pinnacle, it is actually equally important that Level 3 is in place due to the nature of life, and in most cases, if you can’t get engagement with Level 2, then Level 3 won’t be possible either.

There is also, however, a fundamental assumption built into the whole structure, and that is that the role of a teacher in deciding what a child should be learning is key. Children do have natural learning impulses which we should try to harness and work with, but they lack the knowledge, maturity and wisdom to make judgements regarding what will be to their future benefit. Furthermore, formal schooling is there as a learning multiplier not simply a ‘learning enabler’, and the role of the teacher in this is key. Independence is the ultimate goal of schooling not something it needs to have reached as soon as possible. If you don’t agree with this, then you’re not going to like what I’m doing here!

Engagement Table


Level  0 – I was tempted to split this into more levels, as there are multiple steps on the road to purposeful learning, and there are situations where teachers can continue to wrestle with these issues throughout the age of compulsory schooling:  getting pupils to come to school, getting them to willingly be in lessons, getting them to be there and not disrupt the learning of others etc. This area isn’t the real focus of this blog post though.

Level 1 – I would consider this as a surrogate for purposeful learning. It is true that children could be learning all sorts of ‘soft’ skills or incidental things in such activities, but unless that is specifically what the goal is for the teacher, it is failing the children. One of my biggest current concerns about this level is my belief that children are gradually becoming desensitized to the world around them. In the attempt to compete with the digital game world that awaits many of them at home, we try harder and harder to develop strategies of ‘shock and awe’. The longer-term consequences of joining in with this are that it is likely to affect both their willingness to look at ordinary things, and also their ability to notice subtle distinctions around them.

Level 2 – At this level, pupils do engage with the learning which is intended for them, but through the use of strong, immediate extrinsic incentives. Normally it will come down to simple threats or promises from the teacher to coerce children to ‘knuckle down’ for a while. This introduces children to the world of necessity, but only at the level of training a pet. Giving children lots of choices as to what area of learning they focus on is a powerful engager, but for the vast majority of the adult workforce there really isn’t that flexibility available regarding the work they do, and so it is prioritising the world of opportunity in children over the world of necessity.

Level 3 – Here pupils are encouraged to develop a longer-term picture of the consequences of learning and applying effort in general. They begin to master the art of delaying gratification and the anticipation of problems in the future. In essence they learn to cope with the World of Necessity which is a fact of life for any adult. At this level I would also include what I have called ‘Self-Gamification’ -psychological tricks which any of us can play to turn something which is humdrum but unavoidable into something more engaging for ourselves, perhaps viewing the challenge through a different lens, or modifying it a little within permissible constraints to make it a challenge we feel inspired by. An example of this would be my own tendency on long motorway drives to try to avoid any wheels clipping the ‘cats eyes’ when overtaking!

Part 3 of this extended blog focuses exclusively on looking at Level 4 engagement and the variety of ways in which it might be activated.