Making the switch: how I went from secondary to primary and how you can too

Sometimes people ask me what’s the one big thing I’ve noticed switching from being a secondary teacher to a primary teacher and, honestly, it is the amount of DMs I get from secondary teachers asking how to make the switch. I thought I would put together a blog post on the one year anniversary of me becoming a primary teacher to talk about how I made the switch, and with some advice for those looking to do the same. I hope to add to this with another post with some more detailed reflections on a year in my new role.

How I made the leap

I wish I could lay out a really clear path to moving between the secondary and primary sectors but there isn’t one out there that I know of. Most people who have been successful seem to do it through a mixture of chance, lucky and serendipity and all those things combined facilitated my move to primary teaching.

Back in October last year I handed in my notice at the school where I’d started as an newly-qualified secondary RE teacher. It was the lowest point in my teaching career and I had begun to feel as though teaching wasn’t the job for me. I didn’t have a clear plan for the future but I decided to throw myself upon the mercy of Twitter to find something interesting to do between January and July then see how I felt about applying for a new secondary role for September.

Amongst a few different offers was one from my now headteacher who reached out to ask if I’d be interested in helping them reshape their RE curriculum and doing some cover teaching in a primary school. Initially I said no, I hadn’t ever thought of myself working in primary before and I just couldn’t see myself teaching maths to six year-olds. Fortunately for me they wouldn’t take that ‘no’ for an answer and messaged me again later that week asking to chat on the phone. By the end of that call I’d agreed to go in for a tour and an interview to discuss how I might fit into things there.

Finding the right school

I knew the second I stepped into the school that the culture and the feel of the place was very different to the secondary school I’d come from and from other primary schools I’d worked in. The more I saw, the more I was intrigued and excited, I could feel a new door in my career opening, I could see a glimpse into a completely different future from the one I saw for myself from that point.

I decided to take the job as a part-time, temporary teacher with a remit to work on the RE curriculum and provide cover across KS1 and 2 when needed. At that point I was still adamant I would return to secondary and had lined-up interviews in February at different schools which I thought would suit me. It wasn’t until Covid hit in March that I allowed myself to seriously consider the radical career change that I’d take to become a full-time primary class teacher

As we switched to a Virtual School practically overnight I saw what a remarkable place that school was, filled with resolute and creative professionals and I knew this was a place I wanted to stay. Fortunately a class teacher position was just being advertised and I submitted my application just before the last days of normal schooling. The rest, as they say, is history.

Thinking of making the leap yourself?

As you can see my move from secondary to primary is not something that others could easily replicate. I was incredibly lucky that I had made the right connections on Twitter and that I was able to dip my toes into primary as a cover teacher before making that leap into a full-time role as a Year 6 class teacher.

There is no formal way to transition from secondary to primary which is both a blessing and a curse. It is good news because it means that your QTS is transferable to primary teaching and that you should not have to take any time out of your career in order to do more training or unpaid work. On the other hand it means that the process is ad hoc and relies on luck and good connections as much as anything else.

There is, of course, nothing to stop secondary teachers applying for primary class teacher jobs but I am not aware of the success rate that results in. It would seem odd to most headteachers to receive an application for KS1 or KS2 teacher from someone who has only ever taught KS3, 4 and 5, at least I assume that is the case.

Utilising your subject expertise

Consider carefully what expertise you can bring to the primary curriculum and try to find opportunities within your current job to develop that. If you can work with primary schools in your existing trust then do, if you can start to read and write about primary curriculum on a blog then do, if you have spare capacity to plan and resource some primary schemes of work then do. One of the biggest selling points that secondary teachers have is their subject knowledge and expertise.

A better approach to making the transition would be to research some schools or trusts that you feel match your values or that have impressed you and then reach out to heads or other senior leaders to talk to them informally about primary teaching. The more connections you make, the more you’ll get a clearer idea of primary teaching but also the more possible job opportunities you have come your way.

Know why you want to make the transition

Think carefully about why you want to teach younger children. I can categorically tell you it is not easier than secondary teaching. I work more hours now than I did as a secondary teacher and teaching a whole range of subjects is more taxing intellectually than teaching the same RE lesson to three Year 8 classes. I can honestly say I haven’t once regretted my change of career but that doesn’t mean it has all been smooth sailing or somehow more ‘fun’ or ‘easier’ than secondary teaching.

I have another post in the works which will look at my reflections after a year of primary teaching but it is sufficient to say that primary teaching is a distinctly different job to secondary teaching. The structure of your day, your week and your year will change. The way you form relationships with students and staff will change. The way you see the curriculum and the way you teach it will change. It is not a simple transition and it is not one to be taken lightly but, for the right people, it is absolutely the right choice.

I am always interested in talking candidly to people who are seriously thinking of moving to primary teaching. I’m afraid I can’t offer your a magic bullet, it’s not an easy or straightforward task but I am happy to talk things over. Just send me a DM on Twitter.


New Year’s Resolutions: three honest reflections on my own practice

This time next week I will be welcoming back students into my classroom and I feel okay. I don’t have the knot in my stomach I did last year before I began NQT, I know a lot of my students already, I know what my classroom looks like, I know what our schemes of work are. All of that gives me the chance to reflect on my practice over the last year and come up with some New Year’s Resolutions for the 2019/20 school year. I’ve decided to be brutally honest about my own critical reflections last year in the hope it will help some people do the same. So here they are:


1: I will devote more time to recapping last lesson’s knowledge.

I move on too quickly. I guess it’s good to be able to identify such a big flaw in your own teaching because it means you can fix it and become a tangibly better teacher. This last year I have had my scheme-of-work set out before me with a big deadline of an assessment or the end of term and I felt stressed about fitting in all the content so I tried and move through as quickly and serenely as possible. About two-thirds of the time I was getting to the week before half-term and thinking of a video to play or some other way of filling time. That’s me being brutally honest and saying I’ve not been the best teacher but then that’s why this is top of the list of ways to improve.

This year I will spend more time on recall and re-cap at the start of lessons. Mark Enser writes here, in the first chapter of his new book, about the value of recap and recall over the previously lauded ‘starter activity’. I already use my RE version of Retrieval Roulette and I have been using recall quiz slides in KS3 for a good few months but I want to add in time after these activities to respond to the results of the quiz. It seems blindingly obvious that we should be recapping last lesson’s knowledge and explicitly showing students where today’s knowledge fits in with that but when I’ve done the register and scored the quiz and settled the class that idea seems to leak out of my brain and I just leap into the work for today.

How am I going to practically ensure I bring more recap into my lessons? Where I’ve got my lesson notes written out on A5 paper I am going to add a post-it with the key points from last lesson and stick it over the top. I’m also going to try and stick more to a semi-formal lesson plan of recall > recap > explanation > questioning > modelling > writing. I will write that somewhere and stick it on my desk to help me keep on-track.


2: I will stop seeing feedback as an irritation and start seeing it as an integral part of learning

Okay so continuing with the theme of me being honest about my own failings: I have failed to use feedback effectively last year. I know how important feedback is and I have spent time on feedback from assessments and other pieces of work but I have too often viewed it as an irritation standing in the way of getting on with the “proper” work of delivering new knowledge. This year I’m going to see feedback, in all its forms, as an integral part of the learning process and something to be relished, not dreaded.

In Making Every Lesson Count the purpose of feedback is “fairly straightforward. Following the identification of a ‘learning gap’, the resulting feedback should be aimed at closing this gap”. I think it’s actually quite easy to identify the learning gaps in my classes, it’s hard not to when you’re marking 30 12-mark questions or looking at the results from 28 recall quizzes but I’ve often been too hasty in getting a bit of green pen into exercise books and calling that gap closed.

This year I am going to make a note of what I think those gaps are alongside my feedback to classes so that I can explicitly see that they are closed before moving on to another form of assessment. I’m fortunate that we have a pretty sensible marking and feedback policy in my school so I’m going to utilise it and see what works best. Whole-class feedback will definitely be playing a major role as I move from marking for its own sake towards quality feedback.


3. I will be warm/strict

I started my NQT on the wrong note and it very nearly led to the end of my teaching career before it even started. Reverberating around my head were the words of PGCE mentors about “too much teacher talk” and “behaviour is always communication”. I made an expectations slide covered in emojis and I thought I’d be a different kind of NQT, I didn’t need to be strict because I was young and passionate about my subject and I would make my lessons so interesting that they wouldn’t have the chance to misbehave. I then spent six weeks trying to teach Year 10 set 3 Buddhist Beliefs and I crumbled.

This year I have an overarching idea behind my approach to behaviour, relationships and expectations and it’s Doug Lemov’s warm/strict approach from Teach Like a Champion 2.0: “we’re socialised to believe that warmth and strictness are opposites: if you’re more o one, it means being less of the other. I don’t know where this false conception comes from, but if you choose to believe in it, it will undercut your teaching”. He argues that we shouldn’t seek to be strict then warm or warm then strict but both, exactly at the same time. I will be photocopying these two pages and putting them in clear sight of my desk so I can more consciously and explicitly think about how I deal with poor behaviour and difficult students in the moments where that behaviour is occuring.

Some smaller resolutions

4. I will use my (significantly reduced) PPAs to actually do planning and marking and not just sit and read EduTwitter and the Guardian website

5. I will find some way in which that thirty minute afternoon form time does not just become a colossal waste of time again

6. I will try and use social media with more grace and good faith and stop seeking out people to disagree with

A very short ‘trad’ reading list – five books for NQTs

I’m not going to spend long going into the taxonomy of ‘trad’, you can read my defence of the pedagogy and my dislike of the terminology here, The Radical Case for ‘Trad’ Education. Instead I’m just going to accept the term (and the division between trad and prog) as something that (a) really exists and (b) something that is quite a useful way of describing a certain set of ideas about teaching. If you’re curious to learn more about ‘trad’ ideas, keep reading.

I wrote recently a short thread of tweets about how reading ‘trad’ teaching books and becoming more of a ‘trad’ teacher liberated me from a lot of anxiety and disappointment about teaching during my NQT year. As a result a few people reached out and said they would like to know where to start reading about ‘trad’ ideas so here’s a very short introductory reading list. Not every book on here is 100% trad and not every author would happily use the term, they are merely the books that have had the biggest impact on my teaching this year.

A Five Book Reading List

Rosenshine’s Principles in Action by Tom Sherrington

I think if I could only recommend one book for NQTs it would be this. Firstly it is short, secondly it contains the original paper in which Rosenshine put forward his Principles of Education which are, for me, the absolute backbone of everything I do in teaching. You’ll read them and, if you’ve not come across them before you’ll most likely have the same realisation I did: I already do so much of this! What Tom Sherrington then does is show you practical ways you can improve your practice in areas like retrieval practice and presenting knowledge. For me realising I did most of this already but could do it better, more efficiently and more often was the key to regaining my confidence in teaching.

Making Every Lesson Count by Andy Tharby and Shaun Allison

For me this has to be one of the most important and frequently-thumbed books on my teaching bookshelf. It builds on Rosenshine and brings others into the mix and provides an easily adaptable formula for teaching day-to-day lessons which I have found absolutely indispensable. There is a whole series of these which make the points specific to different subject areas which are really great for very specific, subject-based advice.

Trivium 21c by Martin Robinson

For me I think I’ve always been a bit of a ‘trad’ at heart. When I came to choose my degree I went with a liberal arts degree which focused on the Great Books and the Trivium and Quadrivium of the liberal arts. Those are the ancient and medieval ideas on which Western education was based and what Martin Robinson does is reclaim them for the 21st century. You don’t have to be a head of department or deeply involved in curriculum planning to enjoy this book but it will change the way you see value in knowledge and, for me, it really re-ignited by love for passing on knowledge from the past to my students in the present day.

Understanding How We Learn by Megan Sumeracki and Yana Weinstein

At the heart of ‘trad’ pedagogy is a strong bedrock of cognitive science. I can’t say psychology or science is really my strong suit but I do think it’s important that all teachers have some awareness of cognitive science and how it affects our teaching. This guide is really nicely illustrated, with quite complex ideas simply explained and it’s relevant to the classroom teacher.

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers edited by Katherine Birbalsingh

One thing I’ve quickly learned is that you don’t have to be right-wing to be a ‘trad’ and that you don’t have to love everything about the famous Michaela School or free schools or anything else, it’s important that there’s debate and dissent within the movement for traditional teaching. That said there’s no doubt that Michaela, small as it is, has changed the way many people teach and understanding what happens there (beyond the headlines and hype) is vital. This book is an impassioned defence of traditional education and even though I disagree with chunks of it I think it’s a written by teachers with great passion for their work and it is a fascinating read.

At the end of a long year: thoughts on NQT and thriving

There was a time this year when I had written my notice, I had told my husband I was quitting my job and I’d applied to go back to studying Theology. There was a time when I sat in my head of department’s classroom and cried in a visceral, horrible way because I felt like I could not do this anymore. There was a time when I went to see my GP and they signed me off with workplace stress and I sat in my room and cried and felt like a complete and utter failure. It wasn’t that, on the surface, I was being a bad teacher, I was in control of my classes, I was delivering the material, I was doing what I needed to. Instead it was a feeling very deep down that I wasn’t really teaching and that students weren’t really learning.

Looking back on that from my desk on the Monday before the end of term I cannot believe that occurred in the same decade as this one, let alone just a few months ago during this, my NQT year. I remember telling people at the start of the year that I didn’t think I’d ever be able to step off the lesson-to-lesson roller-coaster of stress and emotion. I was convinced that when people told me “it gets easier” they meant in five or ten years rather than in just a few short months. Now though I really feel as though I can give that advice to next years’ NQTs, it does get easier, you do become adjusted, this is a job you can do and being an active part of a network of professionals is at the centre of that.

A huge part of my transformation was about rebuilding my confidence in my ability to teach. In that sense I’m incredibly thankful to my head of faculty who gave me a copy of Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction in a CPD meeting earlier this year. I had already dabbled in some different pedagogical approaches and in the chat about pedagogy on Twitter but it was Rosenshine’s Principles that really liberated me from my anxiety in the classroom about my ability to teach. Here was a clear and tangible way to structure my teaching which meant that I was able to teach in the way that felt natural to me. Better than that this was not some faddish method for lesson planning like those I’d come across before, most of these principles were things I was already doing but having them written down like this gave me such a boost in confidence.

One of the biggest moments for me was letting go of a spark of anxiety that my PGCE had instilled in me: “too much teacher talk, aim for 20/80”. That was a persistent note on so many of my lesson observations and so I went into NQT finding myself obsessed with reducing the amount of my own talk. Rosenshine gave me freedom once again to take ownership of my space in the classroom and teach in a way that was not only quite heavily structured and therefore easy to plan, but also a way that empowered me as a teacher and as someone with a love and knowledge of their subject. My proudest memories of this year are not the flashy PowerPoints or card sorts but the photos I’ve kept on my phone of my whiteboard covered in notes or of well-used models or the recall quizzes that have been picked up and used around the school.

Ms H’s Reflections on my NQT Year blog post really focused my attention on moving the narrative for NQTs away from merely surviving this year and instead looking at places where NQTs have thrived. I think I’ve had half-terms where I did merely survive but there have also been moments where I’ve felt I’ve come into my own as a professional. Some highlights of this year include: talking at BuffetEd, giving a speech at the TUC Young Workers’ Conference, getting elected as the secretary for my NASUWT association, having my resources featured in school-wide CPD, engaging with some of my favourite writers on Twitter, seeing my blog and my Twitter page grow, seeing people using and enjoying resources I’ve made, getting good feedback on lesson observations from people I really respect at this school, engaging with my subject community and generally feeling part of a network of professionals I like and respect.

In the short space of a year I feel as though I’ve actually become a professional in the full sense of that term. I remember saying to myself “I just don’t know why I’m doing this” back in the dark days before February half-term and it is in no small part thanks to Twitter and my colleagues both online and off that I actually know the answer to that now and I actually felt sad coming into my classroom on this Monday morning and knowing that soon I wouldn’t step foot in it for six whole weeks.

Let students learn: why we shouldn’t take cues on classroom design from tech giants

There is not much more likely to cause controversy on Edutwitter than discussion of classrooms whether that’s their layout, furniture, displays or, rather infamously, the views from the window. The physical spaces in which we teach are naturally close to our hearts so imagining life with no projector or a suite of white sofas or a ‘collaboratorium’ instead of a classroom is bound to pique the interest of teachers. The theme behind some of these discussions that I think is more worthy of note is the move in some sectors of education toward classrooms, schools and even curricula modelled and influenced by the offices of tech giants.

Tech companies and tech evangelists have long had a cynical motive to get more schools using iPads and Chromebooks (and BBC Micros before that) and to have more learning focused on screens and apps. The more recent trend is less obviously cynical but possibly more insidious because of that and it is the growing clamour to turn classrooms and schools in facsimiles of tech offices with flexible classroom spaces, project-based learning, freedom from timetables and uniforms and a focus on collaboration and tech. I do not mean to imply that teachers or even schools where this is happening have bad intentions or malice in mind, it is more that I think allowing huge multi-national corporations like Apple and Google to influence education would be just as much a mistake as giving Shell free-run of the National Curriculum.  Scratch below the surface of shiny tech and ’21st century skills’ and I think it becomes clear the tech companies should not be a model for classrooms at all.

A high-tech “collaboratory” in Denver, CO

We would not turn to call centres or supermarkets or law offices when seeking design advice for classroom or curriculum so I am unsure why, in certain pedagogical corners, there is a desire to take cues from tech companies. Though tech giants may want us to believe that their offices are happy, smiling temples to the free-flow of ideas they are rarely anything of the sort. In Against Creativity Oli Mould argues that the whole idea of creativity in work has been co-opted and bastardised:

“Rather than freeing us from the shackles of monotonous, non-creative labour, it has become clear that the rhetoric of ‘creative work’ is merely a ruse that allows ‘work-like’ practices to invade our leisure, social and non-economic lives” – Oli Mould, Against Creativity

I find myself looking at the likes of High Tech High in the US or the XP School in the UK and feeling sorry for students who will be trying to learn in these tech-inspired teaching environments. Not only are open-plan spaces notoriously noisy, especially when work done there is mostly going to be group and discussion focused, but it must be difficult to be focused at all when the traditional educational lines are so blurred. In my classroom I stand at the front and teach, students listen and then they can have quiet, focused time in which to read or write or work in another way. Project-based learning in open plan spaces erases all that and instead replaces educational narratives with the narratives of modern, creative work: collaboration, self-discipline, planning and research.

What Mould observes in the apparently creative office spaces of media companies and tech giants is, in fact, “an increase in the precariousness of work, the destruction of home life, and the slow erosion of socialised labour models”. I find it difficult to see how importing this corporate culture into the classroom is not just the 21st century version of Gradgrindian education preparing factory workers and coal miners for a life of drudgery. The XP School’s motto is Preparing our children to be successful in the modern world, which again sounds admirable at first pass but when you think about it in an educational context sounds more like the mission statement of the Job Centre than a school.

School should be about education, knowledge, learning and wonder not mimicking corporate culture and gaining skills at the behest of future employers. Letting children be children is about protecting them from the demands of the market and the world of work, it’s about letting them learn for its own sake and giving them safe, structured environments in which to do that. I find it unsettling that there seems to be such positive coverage of schools where students are being denied the chance to just learn in favour of training in 21st century skills and methods of “creative” work. We should let our kids be kids and that means letting them sit and learn in calm and purposeful classrooms.


The Radical Case for ‘Trad’ Education

The fundamental question I have found myself asking as an early-career teacher is this: is my pedagogy compatible with my politics? At first I was really worried the answer was no when the advocates for “trad” pedagogy seem to be die-hard Conservatives and defenders of Roger Scruton. I have since come to believe that the answer is yes and way the left has ceded an effective, radical and popular educational culture to the right has been a huge mistake. Here I try to tackle some of the key questions I get asked, and I ask myself, when I reveal my status as a left-wing ‘trad’ and present a case for why the left need to embrace, not reject, ‘trad’ pedagogy.

Firstly, I think it’s important to state that I don’t find the term ‘trad’ or ‘traditional’ to be a helpful descriptor of the ideas it’s attached to. As far as I can tell ‘trad’ teaching has two strands: a strong link between pedagogy and cognitive science and a knowledge-rich curriculum. Calling this ‘traditional’ does it a huge disservice as it immediately brings to mind Thomas Gradgrind, drill-and-kill and the cane. Sadly I have yet to find another term in broad usage to neatly describe what is meant by ‘trad’ so I find myself reluctantly using it as a self-descriptor when I fundamentally reject the reasoning for the term, ah the life of a #leftytrad.


Isn’t dialogic teaching inherently authoritarian and anti-progressive?

No and I think this view has done a huge amount of damage to the education of working class students in this country. One of the benefits of teaching that is backed by cognitive science is that it works.

Why should we deny children in state schools access to effective teaching in the name of progress? To my mind it is difficult to think of any rigorous topic which can be more effectively taught through discovery learning than through good teacher instruction, modelling and practice. That is not to say that schools ought to resemble the Victorian classroom filled with wax models in a regional museum with students copying out chemical equations onto slate. In Why Don’t Students Like School? Daniel T Willingham argues that though sometimes we need to teach things by rote like the symbols on the periodic table or phonetic sounds, the vast majority of our teaching should be building and adding to internal schema so that new knowledge has meaning and interest for students.

Tom Sherrington in The Learning Rainforest comes up with the idea of Mode A and Mode B teaching which I have really taken to heart in my own practice. Mode A teaching is about building the knowledge structure, modelling work, guiding practice and teacher explanation, this should be the bulk of what happens in the classroom (80+%). Mode B on the other hand includes more ‘progressive’ teaching methods such as group work, projects and creative responses but this ~20% of teaching is (a) not the primary method of delivering knowledge and (b) interwoven with Mode A teaching. This further links in to Martin Robinson’s ideas in Trivium 21c about grammar, dialectic and rhetoric and Peter Hyman’s head, hand, and heart learning. I don’t have space here to fully discuss the importance of having Mode A and B teaching but it should show that accepting ‘trad’ ideas about cognitive science and effective teacher-led lessons does not mean a total disposal of ‘prog’ ideas about creativity and discovery.


Isn’t a knowledge-rich curriculum inherently right-wing and reactionary?

This is certainly a fair question and one I have been struggling with for many years before I even became a teacher. Whilst the left has been hugely successful at shifting the social conversation in this country, one of the biggest mistakes, in my opinion, has been to cede so much intellectual and cultural ground to the right whilst failing to provide metanarratives of history and culture which can compete. In my own subject of RE I feel like there has been too much emphasis from well-meaning teachers in providing students with the skills to be reflective and critical without giving them material and knowledge on which to practice.

The Bible seems to be the preserve of the right with Gove doling out copies of the KJV, yet, as a Christian Socialist, I want my students to engage with the radical Christ and the truly revolutionary messages contained in, for example, the book of Acts. Through this text, through this knowledge, they can then bring in their own questions and references but without it they leave school able to ‘think critically’ but under the belief that is prevalent in society that Christianity, and Christ, are naturally regressive, right-wing and conservative. Giving students a real knowledge of the Gospels gives them the ability to make their own decisions and, in my opinion, to make the right decision that that prevalent view is nonsense.

Similarly the idea that knowledge-rich necessarily means regurgitating an existing canon or traditional set of ideas and texts is not true. Look at Adam Robertson’s great work in developing resources for teaching a radical history of the British Empire and the accompanying arguments that Labour should support this knowledge-rich but radical history teaching in their education policy. I am not necessarily advocating an explicitly biased, ideological approach in the classroom (not that there is such a thing as an unbiased, unideological approach in the classroom). Rather, I think that through curriculum choice, through access to great works, through making young people clever, we do a much better job of preparing them for political, historical, cultural, scientific and ethical discussions and decision making than we do through a skills-based education.

There is a whole further conversation to be had about the absolute imperative left-wing teachers have to provide their students with cultural literacy (and/or cultural capital) but I have a separate post about that in the works.


Shouldn’t we reject harsh, authoritarian behaviour management in favour of allowing young people to thrive?

I’m going to steal a phrase from conservatives here and talk about the ‘soft bigotry of low expectations’. I felt very strongly that when I was at school I could get away with a lot because I was in foster care and was seen as having a ‘hard time’. Teachers adjusted their expectations around homework and behaviour and even effort in class to try and take account of my difficult circumstances. I loathed it and I especially loathe it now when I think about the hugely damaging effect it has had on my development and opportunities. I was, and still am, prone to laziness and lacking in work ethic and with no appreciation of delayed gratification, I didn’t succeed at university until I was in my 20s and I have ended up five or six years behind in my career compared to my contemporaries as a result.

Rather than giving me the boundaries and high expectations I desperately craved as a teenager I found I was able to push and push and nearly always get my own way. I seriously worry that this the route that so many SEND, pupil premium, looked-after children and, generally working class students are still on today.

Of course I do not advocate a return to the cane or the installation of a Chokey in our department base. Instead I think Doug Lemov, in Teach Like a Champion 2.0, has hit the nail on the head with his idea of a warm-strict approach. He argues that we are socialised to believe that warmth and strictness are opposites but actually effective teachers must be both. Young people do not thrive when they are bored. A classroom where there is no order and no challenge is an incredibly boring place for students to be, they can’t focus, they can’t work, they can’t achieve anything. A classroom where order is enforced with warmth and where challenge is matched by excellent teaching is a fundamentally radical environment because giving working class kids the chance to succeed is a fundamentally radical activity.


Isn’t ‘trad’ teaching inextricably linked to Tory education policy, academisation and right-wing commentators?

I think, if I was being honest, I would have to say “sadly, yes”. On Edutwitter sometimes I look at my feed and see Katharine Birbalsingh and Toby Young arguing on the “my side” of the debate and feel like I’m in the middle of the famed “are we the baddies?” sketch. Fortunately I know there are many teachers out there breaking this link between knowledge-rich teaching and right-wing ideology such as the self-proclaimed #leftytrad gang on Twitter including Mark Enser, Adam Robertson and Adam Boxer as well as the numerous teachers you meet in school or at union events who aren’t on Twitter and who love this pedagogy because it works and are quite happy to stay out of the proxy-political ‘debate’ altogether.

I do not find it at all helpful when people claiming to represent teachers (whether through the unions or the Labour Party) make generalisations about ‘trad’ teachers and schools which do nothing but cede the educational successes and growing popularity of these pedagogical methods to the right-wing talking heads and policy makers. It is time the unions realised that they are there to protect us as workers and stand up for education not pick fights with their own members about how they choose to teach and where they choose to work.

Overall I think it is time to challenge this political-pedagogical link between ‘trad’ teaching and conservatism and find voices who will drown out the Youngs, Goves and Birbalsinghs in promoting ideas that work and empower young people. It works both ways, traditional left-wing spaces like unions and Labour have to acknowledge that ‘trad’ teaching is here to stay and not antithetical to their aims, and left-wing ‘trad’ teachers have to be more vocal and challenge those who want to claim our methods for the right.

Reduce, reuse, recycle: PowerPoint, Word and cognitive load

What is Cognitive Load Theory and how does it apply to our resources?

This article from Impact presents two main ways in which Cognitive Load Theory (CLT) can be applied to the classroom: intrinsic and extraneous cognitive load. The design of our information and resources is absolutely key to tackling cognitive load so let’s look at how we can do that.

Intrinsic cognitive load can be reduced by breaking down the subject content, sequencing the delivery so that sub-tasks are taught individually before being explained together as a whole. The idea is to not overwhelm a student too early on in the introduction of new work.

Just as our verbal instructions and explanations must be clear and concise so must our visual instructions and explanations. Sequence and content overload are both things which can be overcome with good graphic design.

Extraneous cognitive load can be reduced by the way in which instructions are presented. We make sense of new material by referencing schema or mental models of pre-existing knowledge. Lack of clarity in instruction puts too high a load on the working memory, and so too much time is spent problem-solving the instructions as opposed to new schema formation. For example, lessons that use PowerPoint with excessive writing and the teacher talking at the same time, can inadvertently generate excessive cognitive load and lead to working memory failures.

Focusing our visual explanations and instructions on complementing rather than duplicating our verbal utterances is key to reducing this type of cognitive load. Furthermore we can think about where we are putting information and where students can access it to form schema and commit information to memory. Speech is very immediate but a PowerPoint slide might stay up for a few minutes whilst a knowledge organiser is a visual resource students can access whenever they need to.

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

I think there are three main principles to consider when you are assessing the effectiveness of your information design whether it’s presentations, worksheets, knowledge organisers or even students own notes.

1. Reduce

I certainly had a tendency in the past to use a blank PowerPoint slide as a brain dump where I would write down what I would later say in the lesson itself. By thinking of our information resources as complementary to teacher talk rather than duplicating it we can hugely cut down on the amount of text, and even the visuals needed on our slides. Do not read off slides and if you are going to have students make notes from slides do not have them on display as you are talking.

Similarly we need to reduce the amount of noise on the page. Whether that’s a busy PowerPoint theme, a selection of different fonts or colours or just a ‘jazzy’ worksheet. It has to go. Simplicity is absolutely key when you are trying to transmit knowledge in a visual form to children. Start with what is essential for the students to have in front of them then stop.

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An example KS4 Knowledge Organiser: black and white, grid format, one font, familiar icons


2. Reuse

As you plan a scheme of work you would naturally think of what kind of vocabulary you would introduce and then use throughout: if I am teaching the Religion and Life module I am going to want to introduce the idea of sanctity of life early on and keep referencing it. The same can be said of our visual language: if I introduce an icon of a cradle to symbolise the incarnation of Christ then I need to be reusing that exact same icon in all future PowerPoints, knowledge organisers, quizzes and even notes. This both increases cognition through dual coding theory by using both visual and verbal channels but also increases recall as students can recognise the symbols even if the exact vocabulary escapes their immediate grasp.

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Icons to represent key points in Jesus’ life I use again-and-again along with the key vocabulary

3. Recycle

Give yourself a visual style and stick to it. Not only does this reduce cognitive load on students as they don’t have to deal with a new font or layout or colour scheme each lesson but it also saves you work as you can easily adapt one lesson’s resources to suit the next. I use the same reading and note-taking template a lot and because I use it so consistently I can now present it to students without spending a long time explaining the task. Similarly reusing quiz slides, re-cap slides or start-of-lesson slides acts as a visual bit of routine building. Students know when they come in and see my start-of-lesson slide with title, date, definition and re-cap quiz that they have to do those things in that order whilst I get settled doing the register.

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My Year 7 start-of-lesson slide

Give these three principles some thought as you go to lay out your next worksheet or re-jig your PowerPoint slides and you can take some quite easy steps to reduce cognitive load on your students and even workload for yourself.

De-stressing testing: low stakes, modelled and purposeful

Observing education from outside, and especially the narratives around SATs and GCSEs can lead new and early-career teachers to want to reject and reduce the amount of testing students have to endure. This was my first reaction upon entering teaching, I wanted to scrap assessment altogether and teach students in a holistic way where they didn’t feel the pressure or stress of constant testing.

What I have since come to find is that the stress around testing is not intrinsically linked to the idea of assessment but rather to the culture we put on testing in our classrooms and the quality of our teaching in order to prepare students to master assessment. In Making Good Progress? Daisy Christodoulou writes that formative assessment “doesn’t just help measure understanding; it helps develop understanding”. That is a statement that took me a while to come round to as I developed my own pedagogy but it’s one I can now see playing out in my classroom.

In my view we can reduce student stress and anxiety around assessment in three major ways: regular low-stakes, high success testing, modelling to increase mastery and independence and making assessments purposeful through feedback. 

Regular low-stakes, high success testing

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One of my Year 9 mid-year throwaway tests

Whether it’s on a whiteboard, a scrap of paper, in the back of books or on disposable test sheets I think that introducing regular, low-stakes, multiple-choice testing has been one of the biggest revolutions in my classroom. In Making Every Lesson Count, Shaun Allison and Andy Tharby describe how we have a tendency as teachers to ruminate on the macro over the micro, getting students to think about entire exam papers rather than focusing on finessing small, detailed skills. A multiple-choice test can really zero in on those micro areas of knowledge and quickly dismiss misconceptions.

It is often more useful to first spend time on the small details that contribute cumulatively to an answer. If not, students can embed huge misunderstandings into their thinking that then become difficult to reverse.

So whilst I do think there is a need to move to the macro (in the form of understanding concepts in RE), I also think that a focus on the micro is not only an effective way of practicing application of the macro but also vital to avoid embedding wrong information. To make these tests worthwhile they need to be low stakes and they need to have a high success rate.

Rosenshine in Principles of Instruction, says we should aim for 80% success rates which is something to bear in mind when writing the tests. To make them low stakes is easy, just go around with a bin or the whiteboard erasers after the test, if students are proud they can take a photo or keep their paper. You might worry that students won’t see progress if they can’t see their previous scores but if you are aiming to keep the success rate at the same level you won’t be able to make direct comparisons anyway.

Modelling to increase mastery and independence

One of the six main principles in Making Every Lesson Count is modelling. In some schools modelling is a deeply embedded practice, I think of a school I trained in in Oxford where modelling was second-nature to teachers and students across every department and I think of another school I trained in where I was told off for modelling answers because it was ‘spoon-feeding’ the students. In my own practice I fall more into the former category seeing modelling not as spoon-feeding but as essential to building mastery.

To my mind nothing is more liable to induce huge amounts of assessment-related stress than to run through the structure of a GCSE paper with Year 9 and then expect them to complete one with no modelling. Allison and Tharby provide this really helpful guide on the process from modelling to independence. It’s a process I’ve followed with my mid-and-low-ability Year 9s this year and I can tell you: it works.

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adapted from Making Every Lesson Count

Modelling doesn’t just mean giving students a perfect 12/12 mark answer and saying ‘do that’. There are a whole bunch of different methods to try. There’s Live Modelling where you narrate your own thought process and explain your mistakes and successes writing an answer in front of the class. There’s sharing the good work of other students, there’s providing work with deliberate errors and mistakes for students to correct and, a little further down the line, there’s co-construction where students work together with the teacher to create a model.

All of this naturally leads to a reduction of student stress and anxiety around assessment (both summative and formative) because of the undeniable fact that modelling aids independence and independence builds confidence and mastery.

Making assessments purposeful through feedback

This really goes without saying but I would be remiss if I didn’t say it: assessment has to be followed up on and that follow-up has to be meaningful and purposeful. Stress will occur if students don’t understand why they’ve failed to master a skill or what errors they’ve made and how to avoid them in the future. We, as a profession, need to move away from seeing assessment as a way of generating “progress data”, even the government is openly admitting that the use of data across teaching is deeply flawed. As Daisy Christodoulou says: “not only are absolute judgements based on rubrics unreliable, but the existence of the rubric has damaging consequences for teaching”.

For me feedback is an area I am giving a lot of thought to at the moment. I know I want to try and improve my own practice in that area and I am doing a lot of reading in order to do that. Given that is the case I won’t try and espouse one method over another but I will say that when students say they don’t understand where they’ve gone wrong or where they feel like they get the same feedback every time with no idea how to improve, it’s tempting to think the students aren’t taking your feedback on board but we have to be honest with ourselves and say that it might be our feedback which is not having the desired effect. A lack of good feedback impedes progress and a lack of progress creates disillusionment and stress around assessments.

Further Reading

Folding-in: concepts and efficiency in the RE curriculum

In Making Every Lesson Count Shaun Allison and Andy Tharby introduce the idea of ‘folding-in’ concepts to the curriculum as a more organic way to allow students time and space to practice and a way of making teaching more efficient in the age of the content-heavy GCSE. They pose two questions to think about when planning a scheme of work:

  1. Which ideas and concepts are absolutely crucial to the overall mastery of the topic?
  2. How many opportunities to return to these ideas in different contexts can you include in the plan?

The idea is that you then take these absolutely crucial concepts and fold them into the whole scheme-of-work so they are both unavoidable and consistently and repeatedly recalled and practised. Reading this it was one of those moments I seem to be experiencing a lot as an early-career teacher where someone in a book or a blog or a podcast systematises and rationalises something you’ve been instinctively doing in your own classroom practice and gives it a name and a thought-through rationale.

RE lends itself very well to this kind of folding-in of concepts and I am going to write about it in the specific context of Christianity and the AQA RS GCSE but it could be applied across the curriculum.

I think we should clarify early on what we mean by concepts in RE and, thankfully, Mary Myatt has done this beautifully in her article On a cardboard curriculum.

My argument is that concepts are ‘holding baskets’ for facts. They help to make sense of multiple pieces of information and this makes them efficient. Concepts are largely, but not exclusively expressions of important ideas within an academic discipline. Our pupils are entitled to know them and to use them. Concepts enable connections to be made across a disparate range of facts; they reside in the long-term memory and can be called on to make sense of new information. Concepts provide the intellectual architecture on to which new knowledge and insights can be pinned.

I love that phrase “intellectual architecture”. I think that concepts are what really make the difference between a knowledge-rich curriculum which is open to accusations of ‘exam factory’ and ‘drill and kill’ and a knowledge-rich curriculum that provides students with cultural and intellectual capital that will stick with them beyond their formal exams.

Let’s look at a concrete example from the AQA RS GCSE. We start our GCSE students off on the Religion and Life module which looks at a seemingly disparate array of subject matter from animal abuse to abortion to the stories in Genesis. Before we tackle any of these specific ideas though we need to embed two concepts:

  1. Imago Dei – man is made in God’s image, life is sacred
  2. God gave humans stewardship and dominion over the Earth

Through these concepts, through this “intellectual architecture”, we can begin to ask ourselves how Christian responses to moral issues are formed and we can start practicing the essential GCSE skill of being able to apply these concepts to specific moral questions. In addition to outlining these two concepts it is absolutely essential to affix them to a quote in the student’s memory, that is not only to satisfy the Q4 and Q5 requirement for a reference to scripture but also, the quote is coded differently to the concept in the memory and provides a short-cut for recall.

  1. Imago Dei “God created mankind in his own image” Genesis 1:27
  2. Stewardship “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it” Psalms 24:1
  3. Dominion “Rule over […] every living creature that moves on the ground” Genesis 1:28

Once you have embedded the concepts and quotes you can begin to fold them into the curriculum. I will often explain the basic facts of an idea, for example abortion being the termination of a pregnancy,  legalised in England, Scotland and Wales, before asking students how one of these concepts could be applied, prompting recall of the quote and practicing the application of concepts. Here I have used a statement from the Pro-Life Campaign’s website which is secular in nature and I am asking students how it connects to the idea of sanctity of life and mankind being a sacred reflection of God’s image


Without the architecture of the concept pre-existing in the student’s heads they would just end up learning a list of ‘for and against’ arguments which would not be connected to other specific ideas like euthanasia. With a solid knowledge of a few Christian concepts students can begin to build cognitive schema which take them beyond factual recall and into mastery of RE. After embedding this practice repeatedly students have a framework with which to absorb new concepts and to parse new ideas.

How can you embed this idea of folding-in into your own practice?

  1. Identify between two and four concept/quote pairs for each term
  2. Put those quotes on display, making sure they are relevant to the current scheme-of-work
  3. Continually refer to these concepts both by name and using the quotes, do this during recall, explanation and practice
  4. Explicitly identify the concepts required in scaffolding for pieces of extended writing

Resources: Four direct instruction techniques for RE you can use tomorrow

For a while I’ve wanted to write something about implementing direct or explicit instruction methods in the RE classroom and I’ve found it difficult to find the time to sit down and type out a cerebral post on the reasoning and challenges of DI in RE. Rather than wait for that to escape from my drafts I thought I’d put together something practical on how I have personally adopted the DI pedagogy in my classroom and provide templates so you can use these ideas if you don’t already. I hope that even if you’ve never heard of direct instruction or have no interest in it you can see the value in these four techniques for really bolstering knowledge and working toward mastery in RE.

Re-cap Slides

“The most effective teachers ensured that students effectively acquired, rehearsed and connected knowledge”
Principles of Instruction, Barak Rosenshine

Whereas in my PGCE year I was encouraged to come up with starters with hooks and intrigue that would dazzle my students I now start my lessons in a much more calm and considered way. When students have written the title and date they read through these re-cap questions testing knowledge from last term, last week and last lesson. Whilst I do the register I encourage them to look up the answer in their notes if they do not know it. At first I made the mistake of then asking for hands which meant that most students switched off and it was the same people answering each time. Now I pick students at random which has made all students more likely to check they know before I ask.

One of the most valuable parts of this exercise, beyond the simple recall drill, is the ability to ask elaboration questions, clear up any widely held misconceptions and make links between previous material and today’s learning. Taking the slide below I can ask what links the Catholic opposition to artificial contraception and gay marriage, I could clear up a misconception that only Baptists practice believer’s baptism and I could link in today’s topic of the Eucharist with a discussion of sacraments and baptism.

Re-cap Slide Template – download

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Low Stakes Quizzing

“In-class quizzes do not need to match the format of critical tests in order for pupils to benefit from the testing effect (McDermott et al, 2014). Rather than being filled with multi-mark exam exercises, assessments can contain a selection of multiple-choice or short-answer questions – which are far easier to mark!
TES Maths: Pedagogy Place, Low Stakes Testing

The combination of low stakes and a high success rate makes low stakes quizzing (perhaps surprisingly) one of my students’ favourite ways to start a lesson. I will either put together a 20 question whole-year re-cap (as the quiz below is) or an A5 10 question single-topic quiz and have them complete it in silence whilst I do the register. We speedily go through the correct answers and they mark their own work knowing that the low stakes makes any cheating pointless. I then offer them to either keep it to show off to their parents or bin it really reiterating the fact that this is low stakes to quash their anxiety when they hear “test” at the beginning of a lesson.

Even in the “low-ability” sets I teach students will routinely get 16-20 out of 20. This has the effect of not only re-capping key words and providing the opportunity for interleaving (especially when it is a whole year quiz) but also of boosting their confidence and reminding them that they can do RE and that they can remember things from term-to-term. Furthermore it gives you the chance to assess if you are obtaining a high success rate which, as Rosenshine argues, is essential to high quality instruction: “practice, we are told, makes perfect, but practice can be a disaster if students are practicing errors”. If you find students are getting less than 80% of the questions correct it’s time to slow down and re-cover material.

Low Stakes Quiz Template – download


Read and Reduce

“Extended reading is often regarded as the responsibility of English teachers. We feel, however, that more subjects should make this a priority”
Making Every Lesson Count, Shaun Allison and Andy Tharby

One of the things I have felt strongly since day one of my PGCE is that students do not come into contact with enough real-world texts in RE. Rather than directly accessing liturgy, scripture, news articles, museum labels, books or press releases students tend to have everything parsed through a textbook. When I started to really consider how to make my teaching more knowledge-focused I knew I wanted to get my students reading and interacting with these texts and this simple format has been really successful at doing that across all levels of ability.

Selecting the texts is, of course, hugely important. In this example I have taken an article from the Church of England website about Youth Evangelism but, knowing it is for students in “lower” sets, I have been through, removed needlessly complex language and added a glossary for terms like ‘clergy’ and ‘General Synod’ which need to be left in the text. I then get students to decide on a sub-title and icon for each paragraph (dual coding coming in there) and get them to summarise it in 2-3 bullet points. You can see on the example here I have modelled this expectation which is something I try and do on all my worksheets. Finally I ask students to condense down the text into 3 main points which they formulate at the bottom.

It is important to note that this is not a stand-alone task. It will have been preceded by an explanation of evangelism and the current state of the Church of England, I do not find that sending students in “blind” to these reading tasks is useful. It will also be followed-up by either discussion or questioning or further writing in which the knowledge gained is used and developed. Here I might ask students to then complete a question along the lines of “are churches doing enough to encourage young people to become Christian?”.

Read and Reduce Template – download


Exam Models

“Provide models: providing students with models and worked examples can help them learn and solve problems faster”
Principles of Instruction, Barak Rosenshine

On my training year I went from one school that didn’t see modelling as key to its pedagogy to another which modelled every task which students were required to do. I was shocked to find that students with experience of extensive modelling were actually much more able to work on independent extended writing than those who were encouraged to be ‘independent’ from the outset. I learned quickly that deliberate, guided practice is a much more effective method of instruction than waiting to give (oft-ignored) feedback once a piece of work has been written and marked.

This use of modelling is not so much constructive, where I guide students through a process step-by-step, but deconstructive where I provide students with a finished product which they judge and deconstruct. Students read through the exemplar answer and then use the checklist to identify which criteria the answer meets. They then work in pairs or individually to identify two EBI and two WWW and, finally, they use a highlighter to address SpaG. AQA has recently provided sets of exemplar answers with their marking rationale so I have not even had to write the models myself.

I have found that looking at exemplar answers to exam questions is a much more effective trigger of the “clicking” moment for students than feedback on questions they have written. I often feel as though I can feed-back that answers need to be “developed” or “extended” or “concluded” but students don’t actually realise what a developed, extended and concluded answer looks like until they see someone else’s example. This activity is at its most effective just before students tackle the question (or a different question in the same format) themselves allowing them to develop independence and practice the writing skills they deconstructed on the exemplar.

Exam Model Template – download