It’s become increasingly clear to me that training teachers on how to use pedagogical techniques is of limited use. Over the past year or so I’ve lost count of the times I’ve watched a teacher act on feedback, improve how how they are, say, cold calling, or using a visualiser or mini-whiteboard, and yet still somehow the lesson is a series of missed opportunities with students failing to learn what was intended.

A few years ago I read (or at lest, skimmed) Mary Kennedy’s 2015 paper, Parsing the Practice of Teaching and was struck, like so many others, by her analysis of five ‘persistent problems’ which all teachers have to solve every lesson. She referred to these problems as:

  1. Portraying the curriculum (finding ways to bring subject matter to life)
  2. Enlisting student participation (making sure that students are engaged in meaningful activities)
  3. Exposing student thinking (finding out what students are thinking)
  4. Containing student behaviour (making sure that lessons are safe and not disrupted)
  5. Accommodating personal needs (ensuring students are not alienated by any of the above[1])

As is so often the case, these ideas went on the back boiler and simmered away.

Then, in November last year, I got to listen to Tom Sherrington speak at my Trust’s annual conference. One of the points that stood out was the need to ensure that in every lesson students are paying attention, that they have opportunities to think about new content in a way which helps them make sense of it, and that they also need opportunities to consolidate what they have learned. Whilst these three purpose don’t completely overlap with Kennedy’s persistent problems, they are, potentially, a bit more straightforward as a way to evaluate the effectiveness of the strategies we employ in lessons.

Predictably, I can’t remember much of the detail of what Tom talked about but this was enough for me to start thinking about how to leverage these purposes as lenses through which teachers can make decisions about what teaching strategies they should employ at any given time. Later at the same conference I taught a staged lesson to a wonderful group of Year 10 students from Ormiston Ilkeston Enterprise Academy which I quickly adapted in light of Tom’s ideas. .

These were all students I hadn’t met previously and the only thing I knew about them was that they had all studied An Inspector Calls. Before we went on stage, I checked that all the students had been taught about capitalism and socialism and so began by dividing them into pairs and asking one of the pair to write a definition of capitalism and the other to write a definition for socialism. As well as circulating to check what was being written, I went through the ‘1, 2, 3, show me’ routine to make sure everyone had something reasonable recorded. I sampled a range of answers and arrived at definitions we all agreed upon.

The next step was to ask students to use these two key words to answer the question, ‘Why did Priestley write An Inspector Calls?’ in a single sentence. Again, I circulated, made a few interventions and then asked everyone to hold up their MWB. We listened to a few answers before I selected one which I felt would be easy to improve and wrote it, verbatim, onto a flip chart. I forget now exactly how the answer was phrased, but I explained the concepts of redundancy and concision as being hallmarks of academic language. I then asked them to think about whether there were any redundant words or phrases and how the answer could be made more concise. (This included me spending a few minutes getting various students to repeat the new words and their definitions until I was reasonably sure they were all confident with them.)

After some think time, the next step was to ask students for their suggestions and go through a process or rewriting the answer I’d recorded until we were all happy with it. This involved lots of rapid fire questions, mini turn and talks and tons of repetition, We ended up with something like, ‘Priestley wrote An Inspector Calls in order to criticise capitalism and promote socialism.’ I went through a process of getting students to repeat the answer with it both visible and concealed until I was fairly sure everyone had it down pat. We spent the final few moments exploring the extent to which students agreed or disagreed with the statement, And that was about all we had time for in 30 minutes. Nothing particularly spectacular on my part, but I could see that the students all had a sense of having achieved something and they left the stage to hearty and well-deserved applause.

Image credit: Tom Sherrington

Following the lesson, I asked the audience to answer the following questions based on Tom’s talk:
1. What did they see me doing to make sure I had all students’ attention?
2. What did I do to ensure all students were making meaning by relating new knowledge to existing knowledge?
3. What did I do to make sure all students were consolidating their new understanding?
This is what we came up with:
  • Students were asked to display answers they had written on MWBs
  • Students were cold called
  • I circulated the ‘room’ to see that students were doing what was expected
  • Students were asked to repeat what I and their their peers had said

Making meaning

  • Students were asked to write ideas on MWBs in response to prompts
  • Students were asked to turn and talk to exchange ideas
  • Students were asked to rephrase ideas in their own words
  • I asked students to explain their partners’ ideas


  • Students were asked to improve answers on their MWBs using new vocabulary and academic language which had been rehearsed during the lesson
  • Students were asked to reframe what other students had said
  • Students were given multiple opportunities to practise using new vocabulary

Obviously, I’m not claiming I’ve done anything particularly special but I have definitely found that thinking about the moves I make when teaching using these three lens really helpful. Like many experienced teachers, I can often make choices and react to situations without really knowing why I’m doing what I’m doing, I just trust that the choice I’m making has a decent chance of paying off. But being more conscious about the decisions I’m taking not only makes my teaching more precise, it’s also helped me explain what I’m doing to others.

Now, instead of talking to teachers about how, for instance, to use MWBs better, I’ve started talking about how we can make sure all students are paying attention, making meaning or consolidating new learning. If we understand that teaching techniques are tools to be deployed to achieve a specific purpose, then the potential for training to lethally mutate may be mitigated.

[1] This isn’t actually how Kennedy identifies the problem. She frames it as fitting in with teachers’ personalities and preferences. I’m not sure whether this really is a persistent problem. I think I’d identify it as a ‘luxury problem’. Teachers struggling to solve the other problems are not likely to be worrying so much about this. However, accommodating students’ personalities and preferences really is persistent.


Although I was quite sure than none of this was especially original, since writing it I’ve now discovered that Tom Sherrington had blogged all this shortly before presenting at the conference. You can read his blog here.