Reducing Anxiety and Achieving Confidence and Success

After reading Daniel Willingham’s superb new book Outsmart your Brain. Why learning is hard and how you can make it easy, I felt motivated to blog about anxiety, failure, and success. 

I remain convinced that the most important thing we can do as teachers to improve students’ self-concept is to ensure that all students’ experience success. Academic success is inextricably linked to the promotion of student wellbeing. We need to ensure that children experience success so that they are motivated, as a lack of motivation is a logical response to repeated failure.

Willingham’s new book provides a pathway for teachers and students alike towards successful learning. As such this blog attempts to leverage from Willingham’s wise strategies to reduce student anxiety and maximise learning.

1. Teacher reaction to students asking questions is VERY important

One way to making students feel that they belong is getting teacher reaction to questions right, as teacher reaction to questions is a key determinant of class atmosphere. As Willingham writes “and the best test case is when a questioner makes it obvious that he wasn’t listening. If you shame, the questioner, even obliquely, everyone else gets the message: there are stupid questions, and those who ask them will pay. Just answer the question at face value and briskly move on. Even more, look for opportunities to praise questions. Actually, I more often praise the thought that went into the question, rather than the question itself, by saying something like. “Oh, that’s an interesting insight” to acknowledge that the question had some thought behind it. And there’s nothing wrong with pausing, after a question to show that you’re thinking about it, taking it seriously.

A final note: if your students consistently, do not ask questions, you should wonder about your relationship with them. They are not quiet because your explanations are so brilliant and clear. They’re quiet because they see asking a question as taking a risk. Ask yourself why that is.”

2. On the notion of comparison:

Struggling students may believe they can’t personally be academically successful if they compare themselves to others. Willingham succinctly suggests the antidote is to

a) Rethink what it means to be a learner:

“Learning is effective because of what you do, not who you are.”


b) Compare yourself to yourself:

as “it’s natural to compare yourself to others, and comparisons contribute to your self-image, but they are seldom helpful: compare your present self to your past self when evaluating your progress.”

3. Activating students as owners of their own learning:

I’ll deviate briefly to another person I hold in high regard, Dylan Wiliam. He references five ‘key strategies’ that support the implementation of effective formative assessment.  The five strategies each get a chapter in his excellent book Embedding Formative Assessment (2011) As Dylan Wiliam says it is important to activate students as owners of their own learning. One such way is to utilise how to learn from past exams to reduce anxiety and improve success.

Willingham’s book validated the need for students to gain from the opportunity to reflect from their experience by asking them to reflect on their preparation and performance through using a Post-test/exam Student Self Evaluation Sheet such as the one I have used below for a secondary Geography test. I have incorporated some of Willingham’s prompts into this self-evaluation. Using a self-evaluation like this welcomes errors as opportunities to learn.  Teachers need to show students how failure and poor performance can provide important information about how they can do better next time. And students need to attribute failure to correctable causes.

4. Dealing with anxious students:

Willingham rightly says that teachers can reduce anxiety towards students’ assignments by offering, helping, thinking through how to break down, large assignments into smaller tasks. Providing clearly stated, written explanations about what’s expected for assignments. students anxiety.

I have been using an approach I call targets to aim to get right, to chunk a large assignment into smaller tasks such as in this secondary Geography example below:

At the end of the book Willingham presents a cycle of learning that provides a pathway to reducing anxiety and achieving success.

Learning as a cycle:

  • If information is interesting, you’ll attend to it more closely.
  • If you attend to it more closely, you will remember it better
  • If you remember it better, you will more likely do well on tests
  • If you do well on tests, you’ll have more confidence in yourself as a student
  • If you’re more confident, academic tasks will seem more achievable
  • If tasks seem more achievable, you’ll procrastinate less
  • If you procrastinate less, you’ll keep up with work
  • If you keep up with your work, you’ll know more about your topics
  • If you know something about a topic, new information of that subject will be easier to understand
  • If you understand new information, it will be more interesting.

I think Daniel Willingham’s book is a very important contribution to the teaching profession as it provides a pathway for teachers in steering their students towards feeling confident and finding their new learning interesting. Parents, secondary and post-secondary students themselves would also find this book very accessible.

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Differentiation by Support and Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction.

Differentiation is a teacher’s response to learner’s needs and therefore can be planned or unplanned, long term or short term, explicit or subtle. You cannot differentiate for every student and every need, all of the time, but being able to adapt and respond in the moment is just as important as planning support in advance.  As Mary Myatt says true differentiation is a paradox. It is about having incredibly high expectations for every child. It’s about regarding these as an entitlement. It is about offering demanding, concept rich, complex work. And the differentiation bit comes in through ‘unpacking’. This means through high quality talk, questioning, checking for understanding, modelling, explaining. The most effective form of differentiation is through Dylan Wiliam’s responsive teaching – preparing for the top and supporting students to get there, rather than deciding in advance which students will perform which tasks.

We must resist the temptation to dumb down.

Differentiation by support, not curriculum!

This means that our expectations of the students are high, and we inspire all to work towards the highest learning goal.

Using Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction as illustrated in the diagram below:

My Humanities Faculty collectively came up with the following principles of instruction that enable differentiation by support:

1. Challenge and engagement:

a. The basic access entitlement of students with particular learning needs. Inclusion of accommodation for DLN (learning support/SEND students) and EAL students. E.g., extra time, differentiating directive terms, allowing students to listen to audio, reading aloud so that students can access language, allowing Google Translator for vocabulary lists to use in tests.

b. Setting work that is challenging for the top end. That is knowledge and content rich for all students within the class.

c. Initially engage the students by asking them to write a letter to you as their teacher to gauge their interests and literacy levels.

d. Refer to any notes on students from the LMS at the start of courses.

e. Pre-testing to get to know the students and their prior knowledge.

f. Provide extension opportunities through for example longer essays responses for students to excel.

2. Explanation:

a. What is the challenging content you will teach students and how will you explain this clearly? Does this prepare them for further education and beyond?

b. Differentiate through different levels of example sequences of…

– A range of positive examples of a concept

– The limits of the concept by negative examples

c. Differentiate through conversation with students.

  • Use students with the next level of mastery as coaches for other students.
  • Use students as peer buddies strengthening each other in different skills e.g., reading/ writing, analysis/ detail, vocabulary/ structure.
  • Use students as peer partners e.g., writer/ presenter, divergent/ convergent thinker partners.
  • Plan lessons so you can act as a coach to a group of students as part of a peer coaching lesson.

3. Modelling:

a. Using worked examples across a range of different achievement levels. Or ask the students to moderate a work sample such as a C or a D. Show the students what success looks like.

b. Example sentence starters/ language examples for quality written work. 

c. Revision practices and study skills are explicitly modelled, taught, and used in the classroom, as well as developing the ability for students to use these practices outside of class time.

d. Model appropriate metacognitive strategies to students depending on their range of ability. Model how to discuss learning and self-reflection with a focus on developing students’ ability to articulate their strengths and areas of improvement.

e. Providing a glossary of terms at the beginning of units to reduce cognitive load.

4. Deliberate Practice:

  • Expect students to gather information from a range of resources rather than one key textbook.
  • Provide subject reading lists to encourage students to read above and around the topic.
  • Provide resources for students to take learning to the next level.

5. Questioning and Assessment:

a. In practice, there is one main form of easy differentiation: Same resources; Different questions.

  • Questioning linked to level of mastery.
  • Move from closed to open.
  • Move from shallow to deep.
  • Increase level of probing.
  • Differentiate ‘waiting time:’ 10 seconds or longer for ‘richer’ responses.
  • Expect all students to always answer in sentences but at the top end expect students to answer in paragraphs to encourage deepened responses.

b. Adjust your teaching plan in response to formative feedback, for example adjust the lesson pace or re-teach certain concepts.

c. Check-in regularly and make the learning visible by gathering data with formative assessments and instructional practices such as questioning techniques and exit tickets (formative activities at the end of the lesson to evaluate the learning progress). Adjust your teaching plan in response to formative feedback, for example adjust the lesson pace or re-teach certain concepts.

d. Purpose, relevance and success criteria of assessments are planned and, if needed, differentiated for student ability.

e. Using group and targeted interventions to remediate learning difficulties and enhance high achievers.

6. Feedback:

a. Utilising formative data for differentiation of T & L strategies.

b. Giving feedback on student work against prior achievements rather than against other students’ work.

c. Differentiate verbal feedback.

  • Differentiate improvement strategies.
  • Differentiate improvement tasks and feed forward activities, such as reflection and goal setting.

Additionally, here are 3 blogs that exemplify ideas that aid differentiation by support (not curriculum).

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The flaws of the decluttered curriculum; Geography.

I have always first and foremost seen myself as a teacher of Geography. It is such an important discipline for Australian primary and secondary students to learn, especially with the global rates of urbanisation and climate change that are occurring. In 2022 the revised geography curriculum for Australian schools was approved by the Ministers of Education and released in May 2022 for implementation in 2024. Bluntly as this post will assert, the new Geography curriculum is not suitable for teaching in Australian schools, and needs to be thoroughly rewritten, as it has errors, inconsistencies, unclear statements and omissions, and in Years 7-10 will be more difficult to teach than the previous one.

Late last year I had the privilege of attending my state’s Geography Teacher’s Association South Australia conference (GTASA) and heard Alaric Maude present on the Flaws of the Decluttered Curriculum. I was suitably impressed and spoke with Alaric for several hours, he’s someone I’d been looking forward to meeting for many years. I was struck by his magnificent disciplinary knowledge and passion for the scoping and sequencing for Geography.

I know of nobody better equipped to critique a draft national Geography curriculum than Alaric Maude, Associate Professor and Doctor of Geography. Perhaps more importantly is that Alaric Maude was an original architect of the inaugural national Australian Geography curriculum and between 2009 and 2013 he made major contributions as the lead writer to the revision of the geography curriculum for Australian schools for the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and reporting Authority (ACARA). And, in 2017 Alaric Maude was recognised and awarded – Member of the Order of Australia (AM) for significant service to education in the field of geography as an academic, researcher, author and mentor.

Today The Advertiser newspaper, ran a front-page story on Alaric’s critique of the proposed national Geography curriculum.



As such I am helping raise the issue on the flaws of a decluttered national Geography curriculum and adding teeth to the newspaper article, and, with his permission publishing Alaric Maude’s

A critique of The ACARA geography curriculum Version 9.0

This document is a detailed commentary on the revised geography curriculum for Australian schools, approved by the Ministers of Education and released in May 2022 for implementation in 2024. It presents the evidence for concluding that the new curriculum is not suitable for teaching in Australian schools, and needs to be thoroughly rewritten, as it has errors, inconsistencies, unclear statements and omissions, and in Years 7-10 will be more difficult to teach than the previous one. These deficiencies are explained below for Years F-6 and then Years 7-10.

Note: Content descriptions are statements that describe what teachers should teach and what students should learn. Elaborations to content descriptions are suggestions to teachers about how the content could be taught and are not mandatory.

Years F-6

The revision has removed large areas of knowledge from primary school humanities and social sciences. While overall the school curriculum has had a 21% reduction in the number of content descriptions, there has been a 48% reduction in primary school geography. The consequences are described below.

In interpreting these comments, it is essential to note that the curriculum is written as content descriptions and elaborations. The former describes what must be taught, while the latter are suggestions on how to teach it and are not mandatory. So, when content is deleted from a content description, but is retained in an elaboration, it may or may not be taught, depending on the school and the teacher. It is content that is no longer considered essential.

Students’ knowledge of the world will be significantly reduced

The revised curriculum has only two content descriptions about the world:

Australia’s neighbouring countries (in Year 3)

The geographical diversity of the Asia region (in Year 6)

These content descriptions in the previous curriculum (some of them abbreviated) have been removed:

The division of the world into hemispheres, continents and oceans (in Year 2)

The main climate types of the world and the similarities and differences between the climates of different places (in Year 3)

A brief study of the continents and major countries of Africa and South America (in Year 4)

A brief study of the continents and major countries of Europe and North America (in Year 5)

Differences in the economic, demographic and social characteristics of countries across the world (in Year 6)

The world’s cultural diversity, including that of its indigenous peoples (in Year 6)

The previous curriculum had a good coverage of world knowledge, but the revised one is seriously deficient. Students may be taught nothing about some of the countries Australia is closely connected to through history, trade, migration, alliances, and government and non-government aid, such as the United States, the United Kingdom and countries in Europe. They may have had no study of Africa, a major destination of Australia’s non-government overseas aid. They will also learn nothing about the economic, demographic, social and cultural differences between the countries of the world and will have no sense of the world as a whole. This is not a foundation for global awareness.

ACARA argues that the specificity of continents and countries has been removed to allow flexibility to schools about the contexts chosen to develop content and skills. However, as four of the continents are no longer specified in a content description, they may, or may not, be taught., and knowledge of them is now not essential. Furthermore, using a continent as a context to teach content and skills does not develop a balanced knowledge of that continent, or a locational knowledge of its major countries. There is also what is known in geographical education as the case study trap. This is when all a student learns about Bangladesh is floods, about Brazil deforestation, and about India the caste system. In the Hong Kong geography curriculum all that lower secondary students learn (or possibly used to learn) about Australia is that it is an example of desertification.

Students’ knowledge of their own place will be significantly reduced

Children will learn less about the place they live in (i.e. their neighbourhood, suburb, town or rural area), and why it is an important part of their life. This content description in Foundation in the previous curriculum:

The places people live in and belong to, their familiar features and why they are important to people

has been replaced with this one:

the features of familiar places they belong to, why some places are special and how places can be looked after

The change removes the emphasis on ‘the places people live in and belong to’, and puts it on features. It also removes the words ‘and why they are important to people’. This eliminates much of the point of the original content description, which was to start children thinking about the significance of their place to them. Similarly, this elaboration in Year 3 of the previous curriculum has been deleted:

exploring people’s feelings for place and the factors that influence people’s attachment to place, through reading and viewing poems, songs, paintings and stories

Combined with other changes, students will now have less opportunity to become familiar with their place, yet developing an attachment to it contributes to their personal development and sense of belonging.

Students will also learn less about how their place has been created by people and could be changed by people, which is a foundation for local citizenship. In the previous curriculum Year 5 had this content description:

The environmental and human influences on the location and characteristics of a place and the management of spaces within them

This was intended to complete a sequence of content descriptions that developed an understanding of places by examining ways of explaining their characteristics, and by exploring how the spaces within them are managed. It provided an opportunity for students to learn more about their own place, and to engage with local planning issues and conflicts, and it showed students how their understanding of places could be applied to real world issues. The content of the deleted content description is partly included in this one in the revised curriculum:

the influence of people, including First Nations Australians and people in other countries, on the characteristics of a place

However, the new one no longer includes mention of the management of the spaces within a place.

Students may no longer learn about the concept of climate

This content description in the previous curriculum has been deleted:

The main climate types of the world and the similarities and differences between the climates of different places

ACARA claims that climate and weather will continue to be taught as part of the natural features of a place, as in this example from Year 3. The content description is:

the similarities and differences between places in Australia and neighbouring countries in terms of their natural, managed and constructed features

An elaboration is:

identifying and locating examples of the main climatic types in Australia and neighbouring countries (for example, equatorial, tropical, arid, semi-arid, temperate) and the features of those climate types and their impact on other natural features

However, in the old curriculum climate was in this content description:

The main climate types of the world and the similarities and differences between the climates of different places

And its elaborations were:

examining how weather contributes to a climate type

identifying the hot, temperate and polar zones of the world and the difference between climate and weather

identifying and locating examples of the main climatic types in Australia and the world (for example, equatorial, tropical arid, semiarid, temperate and Mediterranean)

investigating and comparing what it would be like to live in a place with a different climate to their own place

Climate is now an optional topic, and it has lost the previous elaborations that helped to develop understanding of what it means. Students may not learn the difference between weather and climate, something that is frequently misunderstood, and which confuses people’s understanding of climate change. They may also learn nothing about the climates around the world, knowledge which is required later in the curriculum.

Useful geographical knowledge has been lost

For example, this content description in the previous curriculum has been deleted:

The similarities and differences between places in terms of their type of settlement, demographic characteristics and the lives of the people who live there, and people’s perceptions of these places

This further developed an understanding of places by studying them as settlements, populations and communities, and it also provided an opportunity or students to learn how to use ABS statistics to find out about their own place and others that they were interested in. This is a task well within the capacity of Year 3 students.

Addition of unnecessary content

The revision was meant to reduce the content in the curriculum, but several changes add content. In Year 5 this revised content description:

the management of Australian environments, including managing severe weather events such as bushfires, floods, droughts or cyclones, and their consequences

has replaced this one from the previous curriculum:

The impact of bushfires or floods on environments and communities, and how people can respond

The revised content description has greatly increased the content of the previous one, and is now about the management of Australian environments. This change is carried through in the two elaborations:

exploring how environments are used and managed, the practices and laws that aim to manage human impact, the use of zoning to manage local environments, creation of wildlife corridors and national parks

examining how changes due to environmental practices create issues, such as water shortages and increased floods and bushfires, the impact of issues on places and communities, and how people can mitigate the impacts through building codes, zoning, firebreaks and controlled burns, and efficient irrigation

The content description in the previous curriculum was solely about reducing the impacts of bushfires or floods, and was quite limited. Its three elaborations were:

mapping and explaining the location, frequency and severity of bushfires or flooding in Australia

explaining the impacts of fire on Australian vegetation and the significance of fire damage on communities

researching how the application of principles of prevention, mitigation and preparedness minimises the harmful effects of bushfires or flooding

Now teachers are asked to cover a wide range of environmental management practices, almost as many as in the Year 10 unit on environmental change and management. At the same time the principles of prevention, mitigation and preparedness that would help students to grasp the range of practices that can be adopted to manage the impact of bushfires or floods have been deleted. How this change contributes to stripping back the curriculum is unclear.

Errors and inconsistencies

Year 2 in the revised curriculum has this content description:

how places can be spatially represented in geographical divisions from local to regional to state/territory, and how people and places are interconnected across those scales

Its elaborations are:

investigating the places locally and at a broader scale that they and their families visit for shopping, health, recreation, religious or ceremonial activities, or other reasons

identifying links they and other people in their community have with people and places at the regional and/or state/territory scale; for example, where produce in their supermarket comes from or produce from their farms goes to, relatives they visit, places they go for holidays

describing how communication and transport technologies connect their place to other places at the regional and/or state/territory level; for example, online communication, phone, road, rail, planes, ferries

Both the content description and the elaborations are confused about scale. The visits, links and connections they describe are between individual places, as each one clearly states, and are therefore at the same scale. They are not visits, links and connections between a place and a region or a state, but between a place and other places that are located in another region or state. They are connections across distance, and not across scales as stated in the content description. As very few primary school teachers have studied much geography, they may be misled.

Elaborations that don’t match their content description

Elaborations should describe ways that teachers can teach the content description to which they belong. The following are instances where the elaborations appear to be incompatible with their content description.

1. Year 3 of the revised curriculum has this content description:

the similarities and differences between places in Australia and neighbouring countries in terms of their natural, managed and constructed features

Two of its elaborations are:

investigating differences in the type of housing that people use in different climates and environments

exploring different types of settlement and classifying them into hierarchical categories, such as isolated dwellings, outstations, villages, towns, regional centres and large cities

To be compatible with the content description the first elaboration should be limited to Australia and its neighbouring countries. The second elaboration has been imported from a content description in the previous curriculum on types of settlement that has been deleted, and has no relationship with the revised content description.

2. Year 6 of the revised curriculum has this content description:

the geographical diversity and location of places in the Asia region, and its location in relation to Australia

It looks similar to this one in the previous curriculum:

The geographical diversity of the Asia region and the location of its major countries in relation to Australia

However, the revised content description is now about the diversity of places, and not of the diversity of the region as a whole, which would include its climates, topography, populations and cultures. It is also about the location of the Asia region in relation to Australia, which is not particularly useful. It is also about places, not countries, yet these changes are not matched in several of the elaborations, which continue to about the diversity of the region and about countries. Two other elaborations are:

comparing the daily lives of people in other countries, in terms of food, clothing, personal and household goods, housing and education, and differences between the wealthy and poor in a country

researching the proportion of the Australian population and of the population from their local area who were born in each world cultural region, using data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, and then comparing aspects of selected cultures

They have both been imported from content descriptions that have been deleted. The first covers the world while the second is only about Australia; neither belong to a content description that is about the Asia region.

Removal of study of the human aspects of places

In two content descriptions and their elaborations there has been an elimination of the human aspects of places.

1. One example is a Year 3 content description in the revised curriculum:

the similarities and differences between places in Australia and neighbouring countries in terms of their natural, managed and constructed features

It replaces this one in the previous curriculum:

The location of Australia’s neighbouring countries and the diverse characteristics of their places

Three of the elaborations in the revised content description are:

identifying and locating examples of the main climatic types in Australia and neighbouring countries (for example, equatorial, tropical, arid, semi-arid, temperate) and the features of those climate types and their impact on other natural features

identifying and describing the similarities and differences between places in Australia and places in neighbouring countries, such as Indonesia and Pacific Island nations, in their natural features; for example, rocks, landforms, bodies of water, climate, soils, natural vegetation and animal life

choosing a place in a neighbouring country, such as Indonesia or Pacific Island nations, to compare with a place in Australia in terms of managed and built features, to explore the reasons for similarities and differences

There are several issues here. One is that by Year 3 students should be examining the characteristics of places, not the more limited concept of features. The content description in the previous curriculum was about characteristics, which are both natural and human, but in the new elaborations there is no mention of human characteristics such as populations, cultures, economies and ways of living. Instead, it is suggested that teachers focus on ‘rocks, landforms, bodies of water, climate, soils, natural vegetation and animal life,’ and on ‘managed and built features’. This is an inexplicable and limiting change. A second is that a content description on climate and climatic types has been deleted from the revised curriculum, yet is needed for students to understand the first elaboration. A third issue is that the revised content description is about features, and climate is not a feature of a place according to the definition in the glossary.

2. A second example is a content description in Year 5 that has already been mentioned for a different problem. The previous curriculum had this content description:

The environmental and human influences on the location and characteristics of a place and the management of spaces within them

The content of this content description is partly included in this one in the revised curriculum:

the influence of people, including First Nations Australians and people in other countries, on the characteristics of a place

Three of its elaborations are:

identifying how First Nations Australian communities altered the environment and sustained ways of living through their methods of land and resource management; for example, firestick farming

exploring the extent of change in the local environment over time (for example, through vegetation clearance, fencing, urban development, drainage, irrigation, erosion, farming, the introduction of grazing livestock such as sheep and cattle, forest plantations or mining), and evaluating the effects of change on economic development and environmental sustainability

exploring examples of positive influences people have on the characteristics of places; for example, reforestation, land-care groups, rehabilitating former mining, industrial or waste disposal sites

These elaborations are only about the environmental characteristics of a place, so once again learning about the human characteristics of a place has been removed.

The conceptual level of the curriculum has been reduced

Students will have a poorer understanding of the concept of place, because of content and ideas that have been deleted, while content that explored the concept of location, and how location, distance and accessibility affect our lives, has also been removed. Concepts are important because they are what we think with, and intellectual development is based on conceptual thinking.

Comment on F-6

I am well aware that the pressure to reduce the content in primary school humanities and social sciences came from Education Ministers, and particularly from the Federal Minister, who wanted more time in schools to teach literacy and numeracy. In response I would argue that it is possible to produce an excellent curriculum that still reduces content by around 30% overall, and by much more in the first four years of primary school. I also point out that children develop their literacy and numeracy skills within geography and the other humanities and social sciences.

Years 7-10

The curriculum for Years 7-10 has not been greatly reduced, but it has some of the same problems as the primary school years. These are outlined below.

Loss of conceptual coherence

The ways that the curriculum has been rewritten has produced some loss of conceptual coherence. An example is this content description in Year 7 Water in the world:

the location and distribution of water resources in Australia, their implications, and strategies to manage the sustainability of water

It combines these two content descriptions from the previous curriculum:

The quantity and variability of Australia’s water resources compared with other continents

The nature of water scarcity and ways of overcoming it, including studies drawn from Australia and West Asia and/or North Africa

The previous curriculum had a sequence of ideas, from the quantity and quality of water resources to the concept of the scarcity of this water and ways of overcoming it. In the revised content description quantity and quality has been replaced by the location and distribution of water resources, which has nothing to do with their quantity and quality, or with the sustainable management of water resources. The previous curriculum had a clear sequence of ideas that teachers and students could follow, while the revised curriculum has two largely unconnected topics. This will not make it easier to teach.

Confusing use of geographical concepts

The revisers of the curriculum appear to have decided to emphasise geographical concepts by inserting ‘location and distribution’, ‘interconnection’ and ‘sustainable’ or ‘sustainability’ into content descriptions. In many cases this has been inappropriate. Some examples are described in other parts of this document, but here are some more. This content description in the previous curriculum:

Different types of landscapes and their distinctive landform features

has become

the location and distribution of Australia’s distinctive landscapes and significant landforms

This changes the emphasis from understanding landscapes and landforms to knowing where they are, which in the context of the unit is pointless information. Another example from the same unit is this content description in the revised curriculum:

the interconnections between human activity and geomorphological processes, and ways of managing distinctive landscapes

This part of the unit is about the effects of human activities on landforms, not their interconnections with geomorphological processes.

A third example is from a Year 8 unit on Changing nations. This content description in the previous curriculum:

Management and planning of Australia’s urban future

has become:

strategies to manage the sustainability of Australia’s changing urban places

Most of the strategies to manage and improve Australia’s cities are not about sustainability. The insertion of sustainability here is inappropriate.


There are errors that are frankly embarrassing in a public education document. These include:

a) A content description on the ‘causes of urbanisation and its impacts on places and environments, drawing on a study from a country such as the United States of America, and its implications’. The United States is not urbanising, as it has finished the process of urbanisation. In the previous curriculum the case study suggested was Indonesia, which is urbanising.
b) A content description on ‘challenges to sustainable food production and food security in Australia and appropriate management strategies’. Australia does not have a problem of food security at the national level, as we produce sufficient food and are a food exporter, and there is nothing in the elaborations to suggest that teachers look at individual and household food security. The content description in the previous curriculum was appropriately about world food security, but this has been deleted.
c) An elaboration in a Year 8 unit on Landscapes and landforms suggests students explain the effects of rock type on a selected landform at the local scale; such as Fraser Island, Queensland or Twelve Apostles, Victoria; for example, sedimentary – igneous and metamorphic; chemical weathering – oxidation and solution; physical weathering – exfoliation and frost wedging. Fraser Island is a sand island, formed by winds and tides. The only connection with rocks is that the sand came from weathered rocks, and has been transported long distances. Rocks do not have any influence on the landforms on Fraser Island.
d) An elaboration in another Year 8 unit suggests Wollongong as an example of population decline in an industrial city. The population of Wollongong is not declining, and has not been declining.

Loss of coherent sequences

In two units a coherent sequence of content descriptions has been destroyed.

1. The unit on place and liveability in Year 7 had this sequence of content descriptions in the previous curriculum:

Factors that influence the decisions people make about where to live and their perceptions of the liveability of places

The influence of accessibility to services and facilities on the liveability of places

The influence of environmental quality on the liveability of places

The influence of social connectedness and community identity on the liveability of places

Strategies used to enhance the of places, especially for young people, including examples from Australia and Europe

After the first content description the next three examined different influences on people’s perceptions of the liveability. of a place. In the revised curriculum the content descriptions are:

factors that influence the decisions people make about where to live, including perceptions of the liveability of places and the influence of environmental quality

the location and distribution of services and facilities, and implications for liveability of places

the cultural connectedness of people to places and how this influences their identity, sense of belonging and perceptions of a place, in particular the cultural connectedness of First Nations Australians to Country/Place

strategies used to enhance the liveability of a place, including for young people, the aged or those with disability, drawing on studies such as those from Australia or Europe

Environmental quality is now about its influence on where people live, not on liveability. The accessibility of services and facilities is now about the location of services and facilities. This is not the same as accessibility, because accessibility includes the availability of transportation to where services and facilities are located, which will vary from person to person. Social connectedness and community identity has now become cultural connectedness, which is a very different concept and mainly applies to First Nations Australians. The cultural connectedness of First Nations Australians is to their Country, a place, as well as to the people who belong there. Social connectedness is connection to people, not to a place. As a result of these changes, the sequence of influences on people’s perception of the liveability of a place has been destroyed.

2. In the Year 10 unit on Geographies of human wellbeing three of the six content descriptions in the previous curriculum were:

Reasons for spatial variations between countries in selected indicators of human wellbeing

Reasons for, and consequences of, spatial variations in human wellbeing on a regional scale within India or another country of the Asia region

Reasons for, and consequences of, spatial variations in human wellbeing in Australia at the local scale

These were intended to get students to examine spatial variations in human wellbeing at three different scales, and to see the difference that scale makes. In the revised curriculum they have been replaced by:

the methods used to measure spatial variations in human wellbeing and development, and how these can be applied to determine differences between places at the global scale

reasons for, and consequences of, spatial variations in human wellbeing at a regional and national scale, drawing on studies such as from within India or another country in Asia

reasons for, and consequences of, spatial variations in human wellbeing in Australia, including for First Nations Australians

The sequence of analysing spatial variations in human wellbeing between countries, between regions within a country, and between small areas within part of a country, has been lost, and with it an understanding of scale. Also lost is the requirement to study variations in human wellbeing at a local scale within Australia, which would get students to think of the inequalities between local government areas, suburbs or rural areas within their own area. These inequalities are a major social issue as they have detrimental effects on educational attainment, health, employment and social mobility.

Lost concepts

Some important concepts have been deleted, such as water scarcity (which has been replaced by sustainability, which is not the same), and the water balance (essential for an understanding of water resources in Australia).

Incomprehensible statements

ACARA describes the new curriculum as ‘a more stripped-back and teachable curriculum’. Yet the new curriculum for Years 7-10 geography has 26% (or 990) more words than the previous one, and some statements that are hard to interpret. For example, in the Year 10 unit on Environmental change and management a content description is:

causes and effects of a change in an identified environment at a local, national or global scale, and strategies to manage sustainability

It is not clear what an identified environment at a global scale might be. Does it mean an environment somewhere else in the world? Or does it mean that the student should study all examples of the identified environment throughout the world? Second, what does it mean to ‘manage sustainability’? The implication of the first half of the content description is that the managing is of the environmental change, not sustainability.

Misleading or unrelated elaborations

As noted for the primary school years, elaborations should describe ways that teachers can teach the content description to which they belong. They should also be accurate. Here are some of the many instances of elaborations that do meet these criteria.

1. In the revised Year 9 unit on Biomes and food security this content description:

the effects on environments of human alteration of biomes to produce food, industrial materials and fibres

has these elaborations:

identifying the biomes in Australia and a country in Asia that produce some of the foods and plant material people consume

explaining the differences between natural and agricultural ecosystems in flows of nutrients and water, and in biodiversity; for example, the tropical rainforest biome in Indonesia produces food such as fruit, grains, nuts, vegetables and spices, and non-food products such as wood, rubber, coffee, chocolate and palm oil

explaining how human alteration of biomes (for example, drip irrigation, fertilisers, pesticides, genetically modified seeds, agrobiotics, terracing, and controlling erosion and overgrazing) has increased agricultural productivity in Australia and a country in Asia

In the second elaboration the example suggested does not illustrate the differences between natural and agricultural ecosystems, and actually belongs to the first elaboration because it is about what a biome produces. The third elaboration is a curious mixture of alterations. It misses vegetation clearance, introduction of exotic plants and animals, drainage and cultivation, which are major influences on the environment. Yet it includes controlling erosion and overgrazing, which are measures to reduce human alteration of biomes.

2. Another content description in this unit is:

the environmental, economic and technological factors that impact agricultural productivity, in Australia and a country in Asia

Two of its elaborations are:

examining how environmental factors, such as climate, soil, landform, water and hazards, support higher agricultural production, such as wheat, rice and maize, in Australia and a country in Asia

examining how agricultural innovations have reduced environmental limitations on food production in Australia and a country in Asia; for example, increased food production due to research into and development of high-yielding and genetically engineered pest resistant varieties, construction of drip irrigation systems, and the use of stubble mulching, intercropping, agroforestry and crop rotation

In the first elaboration, how do hazards support higher agricultural production? In the second elaboration the last four examples are not about reducing the environmental limitations on food production, which are climate and soils. They are ways of reducing the environmental impacts of food production.

3. A third content description from the same unit is:

challenges to sustainable food production and food security in Australia and appropriate management strategies

Two of its elaborations are:

examining environmental impacts of changes to food production causing a decline in the capacity of the land to provide agricultural products; for example, land and water degradation such as soil erosion, salinity and desertification, shortage of fresh water, competing land uses, climate change and pollution contribute to a decrease in food production

explaining management strategies that restore the quality or diversity of agriculture in Australia; for example, improving the function of natural biomes and anthropogenic biomes, monitoring land management practices, improving the condition of the soil or building the capability of farmers

In the first elaboration the second half is correct, but the first half is misleading. The problem described in the elaboration is not about the impacts of changes to food production causing a decline in the capacity of the land to provide agricultural products, but about changes to the environment that are affecting food production. In the second elaboration, is the quality and diversity of Australian agriculture really a problem? And how do you improve the function of natural and anthropogenic biomes? What is their function? And if agriculture is present, the biome is not natural. How can teachers understand this elaboration?


In its clarity, structure and quality the new geography curriculum for both primary and secondary school is unsuitable for implementation in Australian schools. Its quality is well below the standard of comparable curriculums, especially in England, which is a leader in geographical education. It will not be easier to teach than the previous curriculum, particularly for the many teachers who have done little or no previous study of geography and are required to teach out-of-field.

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Positive Behaviour

Positive behaviour:
In recent weeks Australia has received a lot of press about the poor behaviour in their schools. So, it is perhaps timely to take a lens to the causes, effects and consider ways to address this behaviour.
It makes sense to start with defining types of student behaviour. There are three types of behaviour and all matter.
1. Foundational behaviours: the baseline students need to meet to allow effective teaching and learning to happen for example punctuality and not calling out.
2. Attitudes to learning: students need to show positive attitudes to learning, for example making a strong effort, a positive contribution in class and completing homework.
3. Social behaviours: The ways in which students interact with each other and with adults.

It makes sense to look at why striving for positive behaviour matters.

Positive Behaviour is the NUMBER ONE improvement driver in schools… Why?

• Defines your school culture
• Allows students to achieve more academically
• Improves dramatically staff satisfaction and improves staff wellbeing
• Increases staff retention
• Helps with recruitment: both staff and student
• Behaviour is also the strongest form of marketing for the school
• Parents expect it

There are many causes to poor behaviour in schools. Amongst these causes are low expectations for positive behaviour to be the norm and falling to the level of school’s systems as it is often the case that their systems are letting teachers and students down. As Tom Bennett says, “boundaries without love and forgiveness is tyranny but love and forgiveness without boundaries is indulgence.”
Students respect boundaries and they want them. Therefore, the most loving compassionate thing teachers can do is to hold kids to account. Teachers must take a consequence path, but never punitive out of frustration, always a logical consequence to the behaviour shown, including suspensions but restorative work is still undertaken at re-entry.
But what about the belief that behaviour is all about relationships? Of course, behaviour is about relationships and expectations. However, as Tom Bennett says those who claim that good behaviour is “all about relationships” need to deal with this problem: how can people behave well in communities where they have no relationship with the majority of their fellow citizens? The answer is, of course, law.

What happens when someone shows disrespect, and there are no consequences?
The line between right and wrong becomes blurred. If good behaviour isn’t rewarded and poor behaviour isn’t frowned upon, it’s easy to forget the proper way to behave.
Learning fails to take place. If unacceptable behaviour isn’t questioned or challenged, learning doesn’t take place. Before you know it, bad behaviour turns into a bad habit.
Wrongdoings get repeated. If there are no repercussions for misconduct, you increase the likelihood that the offense will be repeated.
The next offense often gets bigger. If there’s no fallout for unacceptable behaviour, the offense will likely not only get repeated, but the wrongdoer may try to get away with more the next time.
Improper behaviour becomes the norm. People mimic the behaviour of others. Before you know it, unacceptable behaviour becomes acceptable to everyone. Wrongs committed by enough people become the norm.

If poor behaviour goes unchecked, it perpetuates. Truancy is the ultimate expression of indulgence, entitlement, and defiance. Hyper individualism trumps respect and service.

The adage of ‘clear is kind and unclear is unkind’ applies as schools often have a culture of inconsistency not of consistency. Consistency comes from a consensus on values and habits schools want to nurture. As discipline comes from enacted habits.

So, what are some possible solutions?

As John Tomsett and Jonny Uttley suggest in their book Putting Staff First. Senior Leadership Teams need to ask the following two empathy questions.

1. What are the barriers staff face with regards to behaviour?
2. What more can leaders do to remove those barriers?

Of utmost importance is to know what culture you want.
Begin with the Why?
“What happens in our classrooms has a much greater significance than we may immediately recognise. For if the culture of our schools affects the character of our pupils, and the character of our pupils then eventually shapes the culture of our society, undoubtedly what we teach our pupils does make a genuine difference to the world around us.” Katherine Birbalsingh in the book The Power of Culture. The consistency of behavioural expectations and the order within the school give children the best chance [for success].” Staw, The Power of Culture.

You permit what you promote, you promote what you permit as the standard you walk past is the standard you accept.

‘When schools invest in upstream interventions—like culture, motivation, and systems—they are less likely to see undesirable behaviours manifest’, Peps Mccrea.

Sam Strickland in his book, Education Exposed says the most effective schools are those which take steps to influence behaviour *before* it happens, as well as putting in place strategies for addressing it after it has occurred. What is absolute kryptonite in schools is low level persistent defiance, which invariably becomes a far bigger deal when left unchallenged.

1: Know what culture you want
2: Communicate this culture effectively
3. Teach that culture and maintain that culture

Authority. If the culture of a school does not unapologetically enforce the authority of the teacher, then the sanctions are often inconsistent. When one teacher accepts something, another will not tolerate, how can a child know what behaviour is reasonable? This inconsistency is immensely stressful for children. Staw. p. 89. The Power of Culture.

“Classroom management is not simply about managing poor behaviour; it is as much about creating conditions that will prevent behaviour problems from developing in the first place.”
Greg Ashman in his book The truth about teaching; Evidence – informed guide for new teachers. Positive behaviour allows all pupils ultimately to achieve as time, energy and effort is not being wasted on dealing with (reactive) behaviour management. Strickland, S. Education Exposed.
There is a need for explicit behavioural expectations for students, parents, and teachers so that there is clarity!
But to be consistent, behaviour needs to be taught. Behaviours need to be explicitly taught to become routines. This is especially the case for those behaviours that are repeated regularly throughout the school day that ensure:
• the safe movement of students around the school
• the smooth running of lessons
• minimum loss of learning time to low level disruption
• Year 7 is therefore the most important time for secondary schools to prevent any descent into poor behaviour.
• Extreme behaviour doesn’t appear out of nowhere. It develops in a culture where low-level disruption is given space, not only to exist, but to flourish because there are not any real consequences. In fact, the disruptor is admired by her peers for flouting the rules and so she now has a reputation to live up to. Unsurprisingly, this eventually gives rise to more extreme behaviour. Therefore, the first instances of poor behaviour in year 7 need to be shut down and fast.
• What is rewarded gets noticed. Tom Bennett in his book Running the Room: The Teacher’s Guide to Behaviour
• The community sees what behaviour is celebrated, and therefore desired. This helps to normalise the expectations, exemplify them in concrete, and draw a picture for other students to aspire to.
How do we teach learning behaviours?
• Need to start with framing what habits and behaviours we want our students to exhibit.
• Schools often have values but really need a set of virtues – actionable values of what they want their graduates to be
• Making better choices not easier choices.
• Notion of duty – be kind to others – helps to broaden their perspective beyond self.
• To work hard
• Teachers need to be explicitly taught behaviour management. So that they create optimal learning environments with direct but calm and caring behaviour approaches. And have clear sanctions through coaching teachers to use pre-emptive methods to avoid confrontation.
• Need to discuss and role model the way consequences will be delivered or given.
• I’m giving this … because I care about you and your reputation and turning around your disregard for others.

Tom Bennett advocates for the importance on commonly used routines. ‘After years of watching and teaching lessons, and then teaching people to teach lessons, and then watching that, I can observe that many teachers make the same mistake. It is incredibly common, and at times it almost appears to be the default. The most common mistake teachers make is this:
They wait for misbehaviour to occur and then they react to it. Why? Usually, they often haven’t had much training in how to handle behaviour. Teacher preparation in this area is often very light touch (or worse, sometimes impractical), so new teachers can be forgiven for thinking that it isn’t important. Who could blame them? If you haven’t been shown how to do something, why would you know? Behaviour management is complex. No one is born good at it. It needs to be taught to you if you don’t want to have to figure it out for yourself. And if it isn’t taught, you end up with a teacher who has no idea how to direct the behaviour of a group of children, and is therefore forced to wing it, go by gut instinct, or make it up as they go along.’ Tom Bennett, Running The Room.

Schools need to push responsibility onto students themselves to give them student ownership. Pushing the notion of taking personal responsibility – work hard and be kind.
Making better choices not easier choices. Pushing the notion of duty such as being kind to others helps to broaden their perspective beyond self.
Communicate the vision for what constitutes acceptable and desirable behaviour that should be clearly communicated to all members of staff and students. Students must be made constantly aware of the expectations required of them. Expectations must be not only high, but demonstrated repeatedly, and consistently.
As Adam Boxer said recently ‘we do not need to urgently rethink education.
We need to get high quality explicit instruction and good behaviour into all schools.
We can then see where we are and figure out if things are really that horrific. But sort that stuff first before doing anything crazy.’

Through reading numerous books on improving behaviour in schools I have come to appreciate that most teachers react to misbehaviour, proactive prevention of misbehaviour is key, school’s need a culture of consistency, clear routines and all student behaviour must receive feedback.

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The Role of Homework in Learning


  1. What is the role of homework in learning?
  1. Does practice of content and skills in the late afternoon or evening after they are taught improve long term retention of content and skills?
  2. Does homework teach students self-discipline?
  3. Does homework prepare students for university or the working world?
  4. If one gives credence to the frequent writing of educational experts and media reports that homework makes no difference, then why is it that good schools and diligent parents persist with the task of distribution, supervision and marking of schoolwork done at home? 

I regularly hear or read these objections to homework.

‘Children need to have a childhood, why rob them of their evenings’

‘Research shows that homework doesn’t make much difference’

‘I couldn’t possibly cope with all the marking if I set homework every week’

‘Half the class won’t do it anyway, so what’s the point’

And “Most homework teachers set is crap.” Dylan Wiliam said at ResearchEd 2014.

It is true that poor quality homework abounds, but it is wrong to then label all homework as ineffectual.

So, what learning habits do I want my students to develop?


As Gert Biesta says, “After all, to make a student responsible for a task outside the controlling gaze of the teacher, is important if we want students to become responsible for themselves.”

Homework is formative assessment “as’ they are learning.

Graham Nuthall in his fabulous book, The Hidden Lives of learners says to securely learn a new concept, a student MUST revisit it in its entirety at least 3 times over a few days or a few weeks. The magnitude of this finding is huge. If we have not provided enough opportunities for students to practice new material, is it any wonder that they have not consolidated it in their long-term memories?

So, teachers should design homework that distributes practice. And, set homework from a mixture of today’s lesson, last week’s lessons and last month’s lessons so that that forgetting is offset. That is combine questions on new learning with questions on previous learning.

Homework plays a consistent role in Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction, as espoused in these 5 ways from the Principles of Instruction Poster here

So, when doesn’t homework work?

Some tasks can be so challenging and beyond the scope of the curriculum that they are impossible for the child to complete unaided. I have been made aware of parents hiring architects to make the models of Inca civilizations all in the name of homework.

A failure to go through homework and give targeted feedback also contributes to negative effects.

Furthermore, other inappropriate purposes for homework include teaching material the first time and keeping students busy

Is there a moral imperative for setting homework?

Yes, homework can increase the chances of students succeeding. As “in fact, the poor motivation of low attainers is a logical response to repeated failure. Start getting them to succeed and their motivation and confidence should increase.” Rob Coe

Teachers need to provide a rationale for attempting and completing homework. By explaining to students how you intend to use homework as part of the learning process so they can see that it is an integral part of your teaching and not merely an add-on for the sake of it. Send a clear message to students that homework matters.  If students know that the worst thing that they can do in your lesson is not to produce high quality homework, they are more likely to do their homework.

Make your feelings very clear.  Nag students about homework.  Praise students who produce it.

So, what types of homework should be set?

Set homework that embeds, improves, applies or extends their learning

Set reading as homework. To broaden perspectives, to add disciplinary rigour, to extend high potential learners and to widen vocabulary of those starting from a low base.

If setting a large project have lots of mini-deadlines and chunk the homework so students aren’t left with too much to do.

Homework is seemingly most effective when it involves practice or rehearsal of subject matter already taught.

As Alex Quigley says students should not typically be exposed to new material for their home learning, unless they are judged more expert learners. Complex, open ended homework is often completed least effectively; whereas, short, frequent homework, closely monitored by teachers is more likely to have more impact. This could include summarising notes; guided research; exam question practice; guided revision etc.

And most importantly, homework allows for responsive teaching. As re-teaching allows us to challenge common misconceptions or knowledge gaps collectively and efficiently.

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The Importance of Modelling

Thank you to Andy Tharby, Alex Quigley and Ron Berger amongst others that richly informed this post.

Why should we show students what success looks like?

Because showing what success looks like really benefits students without a lot of existing knowledge. Knowledge fits into two broad categories. The first is declarative knowledge, this idea of knowledge that is about knowing about something. For example, knowing that the first element in the periodic table is hydrogen. So, there is a store of declarative knowledge, things that you know about.  Then there is procedural knowledge which is more about knowing how. So, ways about going about things, you may think about the skills that students need to know in order to put together a topic sentence, structure and essay, they might know how to construct a study timetable etc. 

Showing what success looks like also reduces cognitive load. Furthermore, it helps check teachers’ assumptions that students know how to do something as they may have never been taught how to do. And, to also aid students who are not making enough progress.

How do we convey the quality of what is to be achieved through descriptors? In reality, teachers struggle to describe descriptors – as by themselves they are inflexible, and mark schemes can encourage students to focus on ticking boxes. This is not to say that mark schemes are utterly limiting, but they do place a constraint on what students are expected to produce. If teacher feedback is then given against that mark scheme, then students get stuck in the mindset that there must be a set of criteria that specifically define what a ‘high quality’ answer looks like. As Ron Berger says, “For all the correcting we do, directions we give, and rubrics we create about what good work looks like, students are often unclear about what they are aiming for until they actually see and analyze strong models.”

To be clear, a list of criteria, help students check aspects of their work, but does not convey the sense of quality – this requires sharing of model work.

“Work of excellence is transformational. Once a student sees that he or she is capable of excellence, that student is never quite the same. There is a new self-image, a new notion of possibility. After students have had a taste of excellence, they’re never quite satisfied with less.” Ron Berger, An Ethic of Excellence. This quote’s insight into the transformative power of excellence chimes beautifully with the importance of modelling.

Why model? (i.e. use work samples, exemplars or worked examples) The Durrington Research Team answer this succinctly with the first of the 4 answers

  1. It sets a benchmark for excellence, by showing students the quality they should be aspiring to.
  2. It makes abstract success criteria concrete.  Simply telling students what the success criteria are or writing them down can be relatively meaningless for students.  They need to be able to see what they are aiming for.
  3. It excavates the thought processes of experts – ‘what to do’ and ‘how to think’ (metacognition).  Modelling our thinking with them, helps them to develop their thinking e.g., by them seeing us overcoming struggles, it makes it OK for them to struggle.
  4. It inducts students into academic genres of writing.  Many of our students live in a household where academic language is not routinely used – so we need to model this for them.
  5. Modelling helps our pupils to experience success. Experience has taught me that I am likely to need to tell pupils to explain their points better, so rather than writing this on their work when the work has been done, I now model how to do this before they begin. Rather than giving feedback that they should have used examples, I now model how to do this before the error is made. Therefore, modelling equates to pre-emptive feedback. Modelling and careful scaffolding helps them to see just what they are capable of.
  6. Modelling helps build growth mindset. “The conditions for improvement are that the student comes to hold a concept of quality roughly similar to that held by the teacher.’ (Sadler)
  7. Modelling cognitively supports students. Students start by seeing an example of an end-product and work backwards from there.
  8. Modelling in this way also helps to dramatically reduce teacher workload. As there are far fewer errors that need to be corrected, and much less need for individual written comments in books explaining where they went wrong in the hope that they will put it right in the future.
  9. Models aid revision. Models help students meet standards by giving them the tools they need to answer the question that may paralyse them when they get their work back for revision: “now what?” (Berger)

How can we model and show students what success looks like?

  • There are two ways to approach modelling:
  • Model the creation of products/procedures – show students how to produce a piece of writing, answer an exam question, make a product, carry out a performance etc. from scratch.
  • Deconstruct expert examples and use worked examples – start with the finished product and unpick with students why? it is so good.  What are the steps that they would have to go through to produce something similar?

What are unhelpful uses of models?

I have been guilty of giving students exemplars without going through it with them. Seeing a high standard model is useful, of course, but not as much as dismantling it and thinking about how the components work together.

I have also been guilty of modelling work beyond the students reach. This is where use of comparative models can be useful.

When it is used in place of detailed background knowledge. This is a common error e.g., there is no point in modelling how to write a historical essay with students, if they don’t have the historical knowledge in the first instance.  Teach them the knowledge first and then model what to do with it.

How should teachers use models?

Better modelling

  1. Have a clear criterion for success. Before we can model what an excellent piece of work looks like, we need to decide on the criteria for ourselves. 
  2. Plan for errors. Start by considering the errors that are likely in a piece of work. Make a list of these issues that you will want to address before students start work.
  3. Model the errors. Ultimately, we want students to be able to self-regulate their learning. An important aspect of this is the ability to spot and correct errors in their own work. Take your list of common errors for a piece of work and use them to create a terrible model answer that includes as many of these mistakes as possible. Ask the class to identify the issues and suggest how it could be improved.
  4. Present comparative models. Why would we share model work of different standards?

Students may not be able to tell the difference between a good piece of work and a mediocre one. Teachers need to help students compare as it helps them to understand deeply what specific good features to include and what specific features to avoid. This results in a willingness to revise one’s work and make improvements.

Students read examples of strong, average, and weak paragraphs. This begins as a game of ’spot the difference’ and then they highlight and describe strengths and weaknesses of each paragraph. Use the weakest model as a completion problem, ask students to rewrite it using the strengths they have identified.

5. Use student exemplars 

These can be more powerful, than using examples of ‘products’ that you have produced e.g., a piece of writing produced by an adult with an English degree might actually put them off, because it just feels too unachievable.  However, something produced by their peers seems more achievable. Always ask the student for permission to model their work. Remove their name, to avoid the distraction, and make copies available for that class. It’s much easier for students to pick out what is good about a piece of work, if they have something not so good to compare it to – so give them a good and a bad example. Present one worked example at a time. See the two examples of a geography piece of writing below.

Model 1 is better, because it contains more examples, several illustrative examples and subject specific language.  This is more obvious because you can compare it to model 2.

Using weak model caveats

When using weak work, there are some cautions. First, the work must be anonymous

Students should never be able to recognize it as the work of a current or former student

Second, the work must be treated respectfully. Modeling mean-spirited critique will promote an unkind classroom climate.

Be archivists of student work. ‘One of my jobs as a teacher, I feel, is to be an historian of excellence, an archiver of excellence.’ Ron Berger

6. The completion problem effect. Give partially completed models and ask students to complete the missing steps. This also provides a rapid test of prior knowledge. Reduces cognitive load.

7. Identifying criteria. Have students look at a strong & a weak model. They compare them section by section and formulate what a strong report must include. This forms a checklist for them, but also leads them to return to the models as they attempt their own, rather than relying on the list of criteria alone.

8. Examining improvements. Show the process of improvement by sharing a weak paragraph and the same paragraph edited and improved. Invite students to identify the changes and explain the impact they have had. Ask the students to apply the changes they have noticed to a new weak paragraph, or to their own work

9. Live modelling

Write a model answer yourself in front of the class. As you are doing this, explain your thought process. Show how you are overcoming the issues and common errors on your list: “Notice I am explaining this point by…”and model academic language

An alternative is when a teacher models live on the board, asking students what their next move should be and why.

10. Articulating success

After encountering a model ask students what advice would you give to the person who wrote this? Return to models across units. Ask students to return to strong models and identify what they have missed or return to weak models and identify the traps into which they have fallen. Ask students to draft answers first and then examine models; having begun the task, students can identify the choices made in the model better.

11. Presenting models after students have completed the work?

After completing, say, a practice exam question, you can ask students to compare their piece against a good exemplar. They can then edit, redraft, or set themselves targets for their next attempt. This approach works particularly well in practical subjects, such as art, which by their nature are built around the creation of products.

12.. In the run-up to exams, be sure to model how to approach exam questions

So, project an image of an exam paper on the board, talk through each question and explain what you would do if it was you who was sitting the exam. How would you ensure that you had interpreted the question accurately?

What would be your first step?

How would you bleed out every mark possible from the question?

What would you do if you came upon a particularly hard question?

How would you time yourself?

Talk them through and model your thinking – this time as an expert passer of exams.

13.. Self-assessment

To know what constitutes quality and how their work compares to it.

Helping students to self-assess accurately and plan accordingly has powerful effects on learning. Have students self-assess their own work against the models provided.

Ways to model writing?

Sentence reveal.

One very simple strategy is instead of just showing students an exemplar paragraph that you have produced, use PowerPoint to show the paragraph one sentence at a time. This gives you the opportunity to discuss particular aspects of each sentence.

Shared writing. As Alex Quigley writes….

Models writing in a highly effective way and is one of my favourite and most effective teaching strategies. ‘Shared writing’ begins with the sharing of the key information or language related to the written task, before the teacher then leads the students in co-constructing the writing, scribing the writing with targeted questioning and feedback. In my experience there are few better ways to illuminate each step of the complex writing process for students and it can work across the curriculum.

Studying models has a powerful impact on the quality of student work

Caveat – learning does not always occur naturally as students may not engage with models.

What matters is students’ thoughtful engagement with the models.

If I start the project by showing my students a model of what they’re going to produce, how do I keep them from just copying the model?

When possible, it is good to show students a range of models with different qualities – all of which come from the same (or a similar) assignment.

Once your students have critiqued a model and identified its important attributes, it’s important to stress to them that their task is not to replicate this model, but to use what they have learned from identifying its attributes, in order to make something unique of their own. Don’t worry if student projects retain some derivative attributes – almost all student work, and most adult work, is partly derivative.

What are some of the perceived problems with modelling? Andy Tharby writes

  1. That it limits thinking.

If students produce their own work, straight after you have modelled it, there is a risk that they are doing little more than copying.  Avoid this by building in a gap between the example you model and the one that they have to do – so they don’t have to just produce exactly the same product as yours.

2. It holds back the more able. 

This doesn’t need to be the case – simply model at a really high level, in order to really challenge the students.

3. It fosters a dependency culture 

Only if you model everything and never slowly take away the scaffolds and let them do it alone.

So here is a checklist for modelling:

Identify, obtain or create model work at different levels.

Identify key points students should be able to articulate, based on the models.

Consider asking students to improve weak models as completion problems.

Plan a way for students to record what they have learned.

Plan to return to the models later in the unit.

Double check to avoid:

Only showing excellent models.

No opportunity to engage with the model.

In the days before computers became the norm for teachers, Ron Berger as a teacher used to carry a suitcase that was full of student models. In his excellent book he wrote.  “Work of excellence is transformational. Once a student sees that he or she is capable of excellence, that student is never quite the same. There is a new self-image, a new notion of possibility. After students have had a taste of excellence, they’re never quite satisfied with less.” Ron Berger, An Ethic of Excellence.

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Using Means of Participation routines for successful online learning

Teachers could consider constructing and using routines to encourage student participation for successful online learning. Because these routines help create certainty for students and teachers alike and thereby efficiency with transitions that occur during a lesson.

As Peps Mccrea says in his wonderful book Motivated Teaching. For teachers ‘routines strip out redundant decision costs, reduce the amount of novel information that we have to process, and make the most of our ability to think less about things we repeatedly do so we can focus on what matters most: our kids and the content.’

Mccrea goes on to write ‘this is why building motivation is best done collectively. Every colleague that is in alignment multiplies benefit for both you and your students, (and them and their students).’

Doug Lemov’s Teach Like A Champion blog wrote about how a USA school, Memphis Rise Academy, helps teachers build a vibrant online culture.  Upon reading the blog I contacted the school to ask if they were happy to share their ideas, and to my delight they were. I have attached their Virtual Participation Methods document within this blog. As the TLAC blog states the first step to a vibrant online culture, then, is defining the Means of Participation you will use and sharing details on execution. What are the options and how can teachers do them well?

That’s why this excellent document from Memphis Rise Academy is so valuable. The school has defined the Means of Participation its teachers can use, named them and outlined details of how to do them well. They’ve even included model phrases teachers can employ in using them.

At my school we have a permanent online learning platform (you can read about here and we have printed the Virtual Participation Methods and hung it on the wall next to the teacher to serve as a poster prompt.  The icons on the left get used by teachers in their materials, lesson plans and slides if they use them, to remind themselves of which method they’ve planned to use and when. By way of example these little icons remind the teachers that on this slide they are asking participants to chat and then Cold Calling someone whose ideas they appreciated from the chat.

Therefore, for teachers presently or in the future teaching online, these means of participation routines for successful online learning may be really useful. Edit and adapt and please share any improvements with me, I would love to see what you have developed.

Memphis Rise Academy’s Virtual Participation file

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Leading with humility, be humble.


Humility is a virtue, an actionable value, a habit that puts the collective needs of others before the needs of oneself. The content of this blog is equally applicable for leaders within schools, teachers and students as leaders. As we will see the virtue of humility, encourages and facilitates habits of success that promotes leader, teacher and student learning.

Self-serving or self-sacrifice? Servant leadership starts with humility

‘Pride makes us artificial, and humility makes us real.’ Thomas Merton.

Those that are well versed at practicing humility tend to see their position of leadership differently. Humility seems to be countercultural in today’s society, where media seems to embrace and reward those that thrust themselves forward into the limelight, as individuals thriving on recognition and on seeking to be liked by the masses. As it is the antithesis of pride and entitled thinking, humility allows for the expression of kindness to occur. Indeed, leaders should be as St Paul wrote about Jesus’ servant leadership looking to emulate the following and ‘Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.’ Philippians 2:3-4. So, leaders need to be countercultural and be humble. As author Rico Tice writes in his book Faithful Leaders ‘Too often leaders have been harsh or arrogant or distant in their leadership. Not willing to listen to concerns and that has caused immeasurable pain to people. They have sent away those that told them what we did not like to hear.’ Leadership therefore should be directed by the interests of others. Don’t look to be served, but to serve.

Intellectual humility:

A successful leadership style is one of engaging others’ thinking, exercising intellectual humility, ultimately leveraging off the collective wisdom of others. This suggests that to be humble is to be open to new ideas and ways of knowing. Thus, humility involves the willingness to learn from others. Perspective taking is important as it reduces the likelihood of blind spots emerging and helps equip leaders to make informed judgements for decision making, because they have gained insights into the thinking of teachers and leaders. As a consequence, humility lets teams feel equally important and valued.

When hiring for a leadership role, you may be overlooking one of the most important traits of top performers: humility. Intellectual humility should be the number one attribute to look for when hiring teachers as it signals that they are open to continuous growth and learning.

So how do leaders set about cultivating humility?

  1. Don’t let your position of authority let you think you know more than those you lead.

Leaders who think they know more that those they lead deprive themselves of the collective wisdom and knowledge of the community. In addition, leaders who rely on a “power over” approach, suppress honest feedback and risk taking from those they lead. Humility is about appreciating something greater than oneself.

2. Humble leaders listen well.

True leadership shows itself in humble service. As Rico Tice writes ‘Listening requires being proactive: inviting those who we know are critical of us to have a conversation with us, in which we work hard to understand them and see if and (probably) where we need to change. We might not agree with everything they say, but we need to be humble and ready to listen and change. Those who are different from us can expose our casual assumptions and our complete blind spots. Those who are not our friends may well find it easier to speak to us, for they have less to lose if we respond badly. Never assume you know enough about someone or something or a particular situation without listening and listening hard first.’

3. Develop the habit of being honest about our mistakes.

Admitting and talking about our mistakes as leaders is an important component of relational transparency and helps build trust with those we lead. This act of humility helps us avoid overconfidence. When things go wrong, humble leaders admit to their mistakes and take responsibility.  A humble person not only admits to making mistakes; they seek to understand what they did wrong and what they should change going forward. Don’t be afraid to say the following: “I don’t know,” “I made a mistake,” “I am sorry” and “Please, forgive me.” Many leaders fear that their vulnerability will diminish their authority in the eyes of those they lead. In practice, people admire and emulate leaders who have the strength and courage to admit their mistakes and ask for help.  Leaders who are “human” promote greater ownership and responsibility from those they lead.

Further to this there are institutions cultivating acknowledging admitting when they are wrong.

Julia Rohrer a personality psychologist at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development, is trying to get her peers to publicly, willingly to admit it when they are wrong. It’s been fascinating to watch scientists struggle to make their institutions more humble. And I believe there’s an important and underappreciated virtue embedded in this process. I’ve come to appreciate what a crucial tool it is for learning, especially in an increasingly interconnected and complicated world. Social psychologists have learned that humility is associated with other valuable character traits: People who score higher on intellectual humility questionnaires are more open to hearing opposing views. They more readily seek out information that conflicts with their worldview. They pay more attention to evidence and have a stronger self-awareness when they answer a question incorrectly. Most important of all, the intellectually humble are more likely to admit it when they are wrong. When we admit we’re wrong, we can grow closer to the truth. We need more intellectual humility for two reasons. One is that our culture promotes and rewards overconfidence and arrogance. At the same time, when we are wrong — out of ignorance or error — and realize it, our culture doesn’t make it easy to admit it. The problem with arrogance is that the truth always catches up. Our ignorance is invisible to us and that is why it’s so hard to see our blind spots. To be intellectually humble doesn’t mean giving up on the ideas we love and believe in. It just means we need to be thoughtful in choosing our convictions, be open to adjusting them, seek out their flaws, and never stop being curious about why we believe what we believe. Again, that’s not easy.

4. Embrace uncertainty as certainty kills curiosity.

David Didau argues in his recent book Intelligent Accountability, that schools are incredibly complex institutions where it is impossible for school leaders to have certain knowledge of the best courses of action or the results of the decisions they make. This being the case, Didau suggests that the only reasonable alternative is to act with tentativity and humility. Leaders need to accept that certainty is likely to lead to poor decision making. When we’re certain we stop thinking. After all, why would we continue to think about a problem when we’re already sure we know the answer? This tends to result in seeing whatever we want to expect to see and failing to notice new or surprising opportunities. Embracing uncertainty doesn’t mean you should endlessly prevaricate, instead it means accepting that decisions are always imperfect, made with incomplete understanding and should be subject to change when additional information comes along. An effective school leader will seek out sources of collective intelligence. In order to allow those around you to give their opinions honestly, you must encourage professional scepticism. This is a mindset which is willing to accept new ideas but will always be prepared to ask critical, searching questions. All too often, the prevailing culture in schools is one which discourages this kind of professionalism, but the rewards of allowing others to pose hard questions and point out potential mistakes is that you’re far less likely to go too far astray. With these thoughts in mind, your department, school or trust is perhaps ready to explore what it means to operate a surplus model of school improvement. Therefore, with humility comes wisdom.

Matthew Evans sums up the dangers succinctly in his blog ‘We readily fall into certainty as we are primed to do so. And yet, holding on to doubt – pushing ourselves to countenance the notion that we probably do not know all of importance there is to know – may make our actions more cautious and wise. Certainty feels good, but resisting its emotional pull may be prudent as we probably don’t have the full story.’

5. When chairing or participating in meetings or when having conversations with individuals embrace the gift of constructive conflict.

Humility promotes different viewpoints and therefore eventuates in better decisions as leaders open themselves to learning as they seek the truth. As Viviane Robinson writes in her superb book Reduce Change To Increase Improvement ‘the key is to listen carefully and value the pushback rather than to downplay it or explain it away.’ Leaders will gain the best outcomes when they foster the trust which allows constructive conflict.

6. Learn from the All Blacks rugby team who have the most successful winning percentage of any professional sporting team over time.

The All Blacks have a culture that governs that no one is better than the team and the team always comes first. This other centred culture is expressed as the players sweep the sheds going by their mantra espoused in James Kerr’s excellent book Legacy, of never being too big to do the small things that need to be done. Before leaving the dressing room at the end of the game, all the players stop and tidy up. They literally and figuratively ‘sweep the sheds’ an example of personal humility, a cardinal All Blacks value. As the book promotes “many of us are more capable than some of us, but none of us is as capable as all of us.”

7. Humility is inclusive and our choice of pronouns demonstrates this:

As Timothy Wright ex Headmaster of SHORE school in Sydney, recently shared on LinkedIn ‘When we communicate with our people what is the message about success we send by our choice of pronoun. The CEO or executive whose speech or written communications is littered with ‘I’ or ‘me’ and points to ‘their’ ideas is sending the message they see themselves as the source of success. On the other hand when we choose to say ‘we’, ‘us’ and ‘our’ we communicate the high value we place on the team and how we value the contributions of colleagues. As Jim Collins wrote all those years ago, great leaders are fiercely focused and consistently humble.’

Here are a set of questions to ask of ourselves as leaders?

Will your leadership be marked by self-seeking or self-sacrifice?

Am I leading in service of my team?

Am I an empathetic leader?

Do I credit others?

Do I admit to mistakes?

Do I accept constructive feedback?

How well am I listening?

Am I actively inviting those who I know have a different perspective from me or even would be critical of me, to share their insights and concerns with me?

Is there any part of leadership that I need to approach differently (or even lay down for a while) in order to cultivate a more servant hearted attitude?

And, as ultimately, we need a balance between convictions and humility, How do you maintain an open mind toward others and yet, at the same time, keep your strong moral convictions?

Can humility be mistaken for indecisiveness? Can humility be a ‘decision stopper’ because we are trying to please everyone?

No, in its very essence, being a humble leader recognises the strength of constructive conversations, asking hard questions and researching what’s best for our students and staff. Being a humble leader at its core requires the leader to put themselves second, to make sometimes difficult decisions and be confident in those. Being a humble leader ensures the process of leadership and decision making has been thorough, it has asked the right questions and has included others’ opinions. Being a humble decision maker, recognises one must lean on others experiences and knowledge, and use them to help the process be successful. Being humble results in stronger more informed decision making and equips leaders to deal with complex challenges because they have invested in increasing relevant bodies of knowledge.

There is a book dedicated to investigating the virtue of humility, that I would recommend and drew inspiration from for this blog, and it is titled Humilitas by John Dickson.

The virtue of humility, encourages and facilitates habits of success that promotes leaders, teachers and students learning. Indeed, strong inclusive leadership requires intellectual humility by suspending one’s ego and considering others’ views as this often leads to new knowledge and methods. Opening yourself up to the vulnerability of being wrong, receiving correction and asking others how they think you could do better. Humility piques curiosity, invites community, unleashes learning, builds trust, maximises other people’s potential and can inspire teams to great heights. Humility applied to convictions does not mean believing things any less; it means treating those who hold contrary beliefs with respect and friendship. There is something deeply attractive about seeing someone who is genuinely, authentically putting others’ interests before theirs. Our attitude towards leadership will always show itself in the way we treat those who can do little for us. As they say, you can tell a great deal about a person by whether they notice and speak to the least important person in the room. It is important therefore to recognize that leaders who are humble give those they lead the gift and freedom to grow into their true selves and to be fully human. In view of this, it could be meaningful in the context of schools to consider the inclusion of humility as a leadership concept in the development of school leadership programs.

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Building a Coherent Curriculum by Reid Smith

I was privileged to participate in a webinar this week given by Reid Smith. Reid Smith is the Head of Curriculum, Assessment and Instruction at Ballarat Clarendon College, a school that has improved their approach to curriculum over the past 20 years. This blog shares the content of the webinar on Clarendon’s improvement journey toward building a coherent curriculum. To view the webinar, you need to be a member (it’s free to join) of ThinkForwardEducators and you can then access the video here

The content delivered in Reid’s talk, the Clarendon approach, should really be what graduate teachers are taught as they enter our profession. Just as the Michaela Community School have, I believe that a book needs to be written on the Ballarat Clarendon School improvement journey, so that the profession can be the beneficiary that leverages off their collective wisdom.  

But first, a little more on Reid Smith, he is also a primary teacher working in a school in regional Victoria, Australia. He is also a PhD candidate at Latrobe University studying the relationship of knowledge accessibility and reading comprehension and has just released a paper on that topic and I encourage to look at that here too.

What follows now is basically a transcript of the presentation. For me I always prefer reading print (blogs) to podcasts or video as I know it is easier to go back and find things that I want to revisit in a blog post.

He started his presentation, building a case for a coherent curriculum, and gave an explanation of why it is important to have a coherent knowledge rich curriculum.

Reid started with a definition of curriculum: Curriculum is the learning experiences that are planned for learners in an educational setting.

There is both an intended and enacted curriculum:

  • intended curriculum is that which is documented; the intended teaching and learning; so essentially what we intend to teach in the classroom, and have the students learn
  • enacted curriculum is what actually happens in the classroom. And the hope is that the enacted curriculum matches the intended curriculum.

When thinking about curriculum at Clarendon they tend to consider four broad characteristics of a knowledge rich curriculum that Tom Sherrington articulated here

  1. Knowledge provides a driving, underpinning philosophy.

Having a great level of knowledge has many benefits. Students and people who have a greater level of knowledge are more capable readers and they tend to be able to comprehend more difficult pieces that are related to that knowledge. We know that knowledge is associated with more beneficial social outcomes for students. We know that when students have a reserve of knowledge it means that they are able to gain more knowledge. This notion that when students have stores of knowledge is that they are able to pick up new knowledge more quickly.  However at Clarendon, knowledge is not just a stepping stone to get to somewhere else. Clarendon actually thinks that accumulation of knowledge, of its history, the world, its people, its science and its future is actually something that’s really a valuable end in and of itself. The school values knowledge; it is the birthright of our students to have access to the knowledge of our various civilisations and they have a right to the knowledge of a world that has accumulated over time. Knowledge is really Clarendon’s driving underlying philosophy. It is what Clarendon is aiming for from Kinder through to Year 12.

  • The knowledge content is specified in detail.

Reid said, the knowledge rich curriculum is an attempt to nail down what it is that the teachers will teach and the students will learn and do within our classrooms. We like to be clear about what the students are learning because we like to think that teaching causes learning and we want to be intentional about how our teaching is going to cause learning from our students.

  • Knowledge is taught to be remembered, not merely encountered.

Reid continued to say, when Clarendon puts together the knowledge rich curriculum, they are trying to avoid knowledge in encounters, where we hope the students might pick up some knowledge as we go along. Clarendon want to have the students amass a really specific body of declarative and procedural knowledge, in a way that is planned and sequenced properly. Clarendon wants knowledge to be remembered, instead of knowledge as being experienced as just encounters. Clarendon tries to embrace learning from the point of cognitive theory. It doesn’t want a series of knowledge encounters that may be experienced differently from one student to another. They really want something that is designed to help students store this knowledge information in their long-term memories so they can build on it later.

  • Knowledge is sequenced and mapped deliberately and coherently.

Clarendon tries to give thought to the optimum sequencing of knowledge to deliver over time to students. So, the question becomes how can we best build this secure base of knowledge with our students, to provide them and to develop with them an understanding of concepts and ideas that actually endure and can be built upon over time, that’s not lost from one term or one year to the next, so that students have a store of accumulated knowledge over time.

When talking about a knowledge rich curriculum, sometimes people tend to pigeonhole knowledge as just facts learnt in isolation. For example in History the learning of dates, and who was the ruler at certain times and things like that etc. Clarendon sees knowledge as a broader conception of what knowledge is. Clarendon sees knowledge as fitting into two broad categories. The first is declarative knowledge, this idea of knowledge that is about knowing something. For example knowing that the first element in the periodic table is hydrogen. So there is a store of declarative knowledge, things that you know about.  Then there is procedural knowledge which is more about knowing how. So ways about going about things, you may think about the skills that students need to know in order to put together a topic sentence, structure and essay, they might know how to construct a study timetable etc. And the knowledge rich curriculum is designed to help students to be able to develop skills in creativity, problem solving and in critical thinking. Dylan Wiliam encapsulates this well “the main purpose of curriculum is to build up the content of long-term memory so that when students are asked to think, they are able to think in more powerful ways because what is in their long-term memories makes their short-term memories more powerful.” (2018)

What actually Dylan Wiliam is saying is that the accumulation of knowledge allows students to think creatively, problem solve and think critically. Greg Ashman succinctly puts it as “knowledge is what you think with”, that is you need this store of knowledge to be able to think critically and analyse, discuss, evaluate and to be consumers of that information.

Because the idea that you can sub-contract a knowledge base to your phone just doesn’t work. In order to be able to use knowledge, in particular new knowledge to solve problems, the information needs to pass at least through your short-term memory. So, you can’t have a knowledge store that sits primarily on your phone, computer, Google or the internet. In order to be able to think critically you need to be able to have that knowledge available, and the more that knowledge is available in your long-term memory the more free space you are actually freeing up in your short-term memory in order to process this information.

Now when we consider what knowledge we want to teach our students, the difficulty is that not all knowledge is equally valuable. A strong guiding principle for Clarendon is this idea of powerful knowledge developed by Michael Young. Michael Young (2014) describes knowledge as being “powerful” if it predicts, if it explains, if it enables people to envisage alternatives, if it helps people think in new ways. So, operationalising it in terms of our knowledge rich curriculum it means that there is ‘better’ knowledge in some fields that is more ‘powerful knowledge’ – i.e. more likely to feed forward into future learning and life. And one way to think about this, is to what degree will things that students learn now feed forward into what they will be learning in the future. So, how well will the text that we are studying in English, how well will the context that we are studying in PE, how well will the things that we are actually investigating in Science, feed into future learning and their life beyond school. The more ways that knowledge might throw forward to future uses is an indicator that knowledge is more powerful knowledge. There is another part of Michael Young’s work that is really crucial and this underpins some of the ideas around Clarendon’s low variance curriculum, and that is that all students deserve access to powerful knowledge. There should not be a reserve of knowledge that just sits for the privileged few such as the academically able. All kids have a right to knowledge. All kids have a right to the A grade curriculum if you like, rather than the B grade curriculum.

Whenever we have differences in knowledge we are going to have to select what knowledge to teach. The idea of what knowledge to select to teach is therefore a really important one, and also fraught with danger too, as there are some things that will not be chosen to be taught in the curriculum.

An important idea from Richard Elmore is as he states, “The limiting factor on the learning of many children are the expectations of the adults in their lives.” This comes to the idea of being ambitious! When selecting content that you are going to teach, be ambitious! Students will sometimes surprise you with what they are able to work with. When you have more ambitious and interesting content it means you can do more with it. For example the persuasive piece where they are looking at the laws of an ancient society and whether they are fair is perhaps more interesting and useful than deciding whether a school uniform should be worn or not.

Low variance curriculum:

When we think of curriculum variance we are talking about the variance in taught and learnt content as well as variance in instruction. We need to think of a range, from a continuum of lots of variance (complete variance) to one of next to no variance. You have horizontal variance that exists i.e. how similar or different is the curriculum received between different classes of the same English cohort across the six Year 8 classes. Whereas, the vertical variance is the similarity or difference that is occurring year on year within the same school. So, say between Year 7 into Year 8 in 2020 and then again between Year 7 into Year 8 in 2021. At one end of the continuum in every classroom experience there would be a no variance situation where the curriculum content and instruction is exactly the same between classes. Whereas in a complete variance end it is the opposite, nothing is similar, no instruction is shared, you don’t have a common understanding of what it is students are to learn, there is no sharing of instructional resources, no same end point in curriculum coverage. In practical terms these two extremes don’t exist, and in reality at most schools the extremes tend to be from low variance to high variance.

In a high variance school from one year to the next, class teachers would have very few shared outcomes that would be more specific than we are teaching Romeo and Juliet or learning about the solar system. There would not be a common understanding of what it takes for the learning to be successful, or what students should know, write, think about or be able to say as a result of the learning. Often the assessments that would occur in a high variance school would be negotiated by teachers right at the end of the process. So, we would all teach our classes and come up with an assessment that could be a conglomeration of the things that we have taught. An assessment that wouldn’t feature things on there that I’d not taught in my class, the assessment would make sure that there were things on there that other classes had taught, and I would make sure that there was nothing on there that I hadn’t taught. On the very low variance side of things you have groups of teachers who have agreement about a unit’s purpose. That are very clear about what the students should know, be able to say and do as a result of that unit of learning and how students demonstrate the things that they know. Often that is achieved through significant shared materials, and at the pointy end of that scale through student booklets that have been put together for all the classes, containing instructional materials, and agreements of instructional strategies that you are going to use. e.g. containing the Docklands Primary school method of teaching algebra. In the middle you have a continuum of somewhere that sits between the two, and most schools are somewhere within that range of low variance to high variance.

Reid emphasised the benefits of a low variance approach where there is more similarity of instructional practices between classrooms more similarities about what we want to come about as a result of the low variance approach for our classes.

Why a low variance approach?

To provide an opportunity for teachers to share good practice.

When developing a knowledge rich unit, the act of talking about what it is that this unit is going to contain necessitates that you have to talk about teaching, and the language that is used and the discussions that use are rooted in what you are actually doing inside the classroom. The idea of making transparent your practice, sharing the things that you are actually doing is a really important part of being a team of teachers. Sometimes we’ll even get together as a group and say the kids in your class seem to have developed this skill much better than the kids have developed in my class. Can you show us what you actually did, the teacher will go to the board and they will teach and we will be actually watching them, and say oh gee that is different to what I do?  I am going to adjust my practice because I know that their practice results in stronger outcomes for the kids.

  • To increase the quality of instruction over time.

That collegially shared information goes into program units and it also increases the quality of instruction over time. As we go about the low variance approach what we are trying to do is identify the best practices, the best bets. So, out of all the things we could do when we are teaching a particular idea what are our best bets. And that comes through from expert teachers and from assessment information. And what we are really trying to do is find the best bets. It’s a way for us as teachers to learn from other practices from other people, the benefit of that is that the average quality of our instruction across classes is increasing, we are learning. We are getting better every year.

  • To provide students with a consistent experience between classes.

This is particularly important for younger years as they move from class to class and a year. What we are really trying to do is have a consistent experience. That consistent experience is particularly important in two ways. Firstly, it is important within a particular year. Consistent cues, consistent routines that reduce transition times between learning activities, consistent ways to set up classrooms to ease the transition between classes, so that when kids move they are familiar with these routines. And, secondly, probably the greater effect is over time when kids move through school from prep through to year one through to year two, it produces a consistent common experience for them which means that they build up a common schema of knowledge. At Clarendon teachers can be sure that students have learnt a common grounding of knowledge from year to year which assists in their teaching at the beginning of each year.

  • To reduce the planning and preparation loads on teachers.

For the teachers it helps to reduce the planning and preparation loads, when we are planning collaboratively, when we’re planning year on year so when we’re using materials and ideas from year to year for the next year, it actually reduces the preparation load. And it enables the teachers to do some really effective things with the time that has been freed up. The other thing it does is build up a strong instructional culture, when you are constantly sharing practices, when you’re agreeing to subjugate practices that you’ve used in the past, for the good of the group, you are building up common pedagogy across the group.

  • To build a strong instructional culture.

This idea of instructional culture, it imagines schools as organisations rather than collections of private practices. In a school with a strong instructional culture, there are common expectations around what is taught and how. These decisions are made by groups of teachers working on their practice, moving instructional decisions from the idiosyncratic to the collective.

So, in high variance schools you don’t have this organisation called school, that exist relatively independently, that run like private practices that kids move in an out of classes located in a series of buildings located within the school. In terms of organisation they don’t really function that way because there’s so much variation between classes, that it is not actually an organisation. And instructional culture imagines these schools as organisations. So, what you’re trying to do is leverage from the knowledge and expertise of teachers currently in the school, and that have been at the school in the past. This instructional culture also applies to teachers that will teach at the school in the future too. What you have with a strong instructional culture is a transparent culture, and a series of classrooms that share their organisational practices and share their instruction, and we own it together. Therefore it is not something held by me, it is something that we do as a school. In a school with a strong instructional culture, there is a common expectation of what is taught and how. That is what makes a strong instructional culture. There is a common pedagogy, there is a language of learning, an underlying theory that underpins everything else. And these decisions are made by groups of teachers working on their practice. What we really are trying to do is move instructional decisions from the idiosyncratic to the collective. So that decisions are made collectively, instead of these instructional decisions being made by individuals that may have more or less knowledge, more or less experience, more or less cohesion than the rest of their peers. Instead at Clarendon we are trying to harness the best collective wisdom of our teachers in order to make the best decisions we can in the service of the learning for our kids. So, a low variance curriculum enables a consistent and known knowledge base to be built over time. It is consistent because we know that this knowledge construction for instance is happening in each of the classrooms in say Year 4. It means year on year we are constructing a knowledge base that is known. So we know what the kids have learnt about and been exposed to in Year 7, so that means that we can build on that when we move into Year 8, Year 9 and Year 10.

Another consequence of a strong instructional culture, a culture that has a strong underlying pedagogy, is that it enables the organisations to “learn” over time and supports improvement efforts. The reason that a school learns over time is that if you have a curriculum that is written down and is present in some place where people can access it and it is used for more than one year then that means that you can make improvements to it. So that the things that are working from one year can be kept in the curriculum and tweaked, things that aren’t effecting the learning of your kids, things that you’ve missed or split up or need to work on, or someone in the team that’s going to work on and make it more efficient can be built into the curriculum that you have so that when you’re in 2022 you’ll have a curriculum that’s better than before so that every time it’s iterated through, you’ve got the input of these expert teachers so that it’s improving. So the school is an organisation that is actually learning, improving as you go, so that even when your new teachers come into the school they are sharing their knowledge and their wisdom with their colleagues, and when they leave the school, they are leaving their knowledge behind. At Clarendon we have some units that were written in their very initial basic form seven or eight years ago, and the echoes of the teachers’ work is coming through even now and there could be thousands of students whose learning is affected by teachers who have left the school six or seven years ago. So the strong instructional culture, the low variance approach, the documenting of curriculum allows us to capture the best teaching that has ever occurred inside our schools. It’s supporting improvement efforts because it means we are speaking the same language; we are working on the same things. So when we harness the collective we actually have an opportunity to work together to improve curriculum.

But it takes time. Change to instructional culture is incremental in time and radical over time. What that means is that you have to be patient, you need to be taking small steps and it means for some of us who want to get there now and reduce variation, the pace will seem so slow it might feel like you’re not getting anywhere. But in some point in time maybe in 12 months or so you’ll look back in time to compare to what was being done before and you’ll see a huge shift that resembles really accretional change rather than a sudden change in a team’s practice.

So how does a low variance curriculum effect Clarendon’s approach to differentiation. Clarendon believes in the following mantra that underpins their approach, they believe in ‘differentiation by support, not differentiation by curriculum.’ This goes back to Michael Young’s idea that all students deserve access to a quality curriculum, to powerful knowledge. If it is good enough for some of our students it is good enough for all of our kids. There should never be a subset of students that don’t have access to a quality curriculum, a C or D grade curriculum, just because they are less advanced on the developmental pathway at any point in time. So the starting point whenever we are working with kids in our class, is what can I provide as a teacher to enable them to access the curriculum. What is the minimum level of support that is required to access the curriculum? And the reason why the low variance approach and a documented curriculum is so important is that it frees up the teacher’s time and attention to be able to focus on these things. So, instead of teachers trying to find some worksheet online, and having to format it and it might be 50% of what you need, and it needs some adjusting and it is from some mediocre website. Instead of having that, you are starting with something that is quality. You are starting with real purpose to your lessons and you know that my class, or particular students might have difficulty with this particular idea, or that a student is going to have to need some support in this. So I will need to think carefully about what it is that I need to do and prepare for bridging the gap from where they are at and what we are asking the students to think about and do.

Now that is not always possible, there are going to be situations where the curriculum that you have in place is not going to be entirely suitable for the kids in your care and you are going to have to make some judicious decisions about that and whether that shouldn’t be your starting point.

Constructing a knowledge rich unit.

Here in the slide below are Clarendon’s general guidelines for a knowledge-rich unit

The first step is to decide on what is to be the topic of the unit?,  and Clarendon stresses starting with the attitude of being ambitious!

Reid then shared some examples in this slide below that were illustrative of the second step above, purpose. By having a common purpose such as in the example of Romeo and Juliet below, the play is taught through the lens of it being a product of the Renaissance period. These purposes detailed in the slide below take these enormous domains and help define what it is that we are going to teach. Agreed purpose leads to lower variability between classes. The shared purpose is a key feature of the low variation approach to curriculum.

The third step is to detail what this knowledge already builds on, what do students already know at the beginning of the unit, what have they learnt before, and what are the things they are likely to know, what are they bringing to the table.

The fourth step is to detail the knowledge that students need to know, that is to be learned. There is a “sweet spot” – for instance in between “doing the Romans” which is a bit too broad and then listing every single series of facts that a student is going to encounter as part of the unit. You are really trying to decide on what it is that the students will need to know and be able to do to achieve the unit’s goal?

The final step is some agreements. If you had a pyramid of variability, this is right at the top. So, then there needs to be discussion as a team (if applicable) of what will be common between the classes. What do we feel will be an acceptable level of variation between us? Are we going to share explanations? Is there going to be a way that we as teachers explain particular concepts to kids? What explanations will we use? What learning activities and practice work will we share and make common?

In terms of the knowledge of course, you don’t write it all yourself from scratch, instead use textbooks, use websites such as the Core Knowledge Foundation, Oak National Academy (has a whole curriculum online), because it is too big to do yourself, instead leverage off existing resources.

Lastly, in the webinar Reid referenced to building a curriculum map, and referred took Neil Almond’s analogy in researchEd’s book on Curriculum, where Neil talks about curriculum as a boxset analogy. The box set analogy works for a particular subject area. If you think about a series like The Simpsons you can watch it in any order, as you do not rely on one episode to key you into the next episode. A high variance curriculum is a little like the Simpsons series, a boxset, because you don’t need one part to link to another episode. However, if we think of series such as Game of Thrones or Line of Duty, these series have particular episodes that have their own sub plots that build through the course of a season, and then when you put all of the episodes together there is an overarching plot for the series. So these seasons depicted in the slide below are essentially like the different year groups. So therefore the question becomes how are we going to build our students’ knowledge over time. So when we are introducing knowledge in season 1, in Prep/Kinder the knowledge is a little shallow, so what Clarendon is trying to do is to encounter that knowledge again and again, so that gradually the students are building this knowledge. The low variation approach is important here as Clarendon knows that the kids have been exposed to common knowledge. The curriculum can be built like a box set where the knowledge can be built over time just as it is in a TV series. So at every year group the knowledge is revisited and built upon, we are building a schema (this knowledge experience) of deeper knowledge.

Another model that is useful is the 3 dimensional curriculum model developed by Claire Sealy. It involves 3 dimensions. the first of which is the vertical links, they are the links that occur between year levels in the same subject. So how does what kids are learning about in Year 7, relate to what they are learning in Year 8 and how does that then relate to what they are learning in Year 9. Then you have horizontal links, so how are things they are learning in English related to History, or in Art, Dance and Drama in the same year level. The horizontal curriculum is not dealing in themes, so it doesn’t mean that an ideal curriculum has a theme. For example, we don’t want apple month where in Maths we are counting apples, in Art we are drawing apples and in English we are writing a persuasive essay on apple eating: a kind of forced thematic ideas. What we are trying to do with the horizontal links is leverage the vertical links to teach the developed sequencing of individual subject areas. So what we are trying to do is look for supporting links between subjects areas rather than trying to shoehorn them in. The third dimension is the diagonal link between those different subjects and in different year levels. It might be something that is built in Year 7 and then is built on again in Year 9 in a particular subject.

Within the constraints of time we have to make judicious decisions about what it is that goes into our curriculum. Because our most precious and finite resource is instructional time. Thirteen years with our students sounds like a lot, but it is not, so every minute of instructional time counts. So, we have to make some really strong and considered decisions on what it is that we are going to teach and what we are going to use our instructional time for. And, at the heart of that, all of our curriculum decisions are political decisions, as these decisions need to determine what to leave in and leave out.

A curriculum map

A curriculum map shows the sequence of learning in one or more learning areas. Of most value is the process of its construction. A curriculum map is intended to be a high-level planning document; therefore, it usually contains just:

  • Unit name
  • Unit purpose (Big Idea)
  • Schedule in the year and Year Level (where it is taught and for how long and in what subject)

Can be electronic, paper or a series of post-its (to start with!)

So the following Year 7 curriculum map is run in excel, and the different subjects taught are horizontally represented. Along the top we have delineated where the terms are, so term 1 units sit underneath term 1, term 2 units, sit under term 2, and we have the name of the units, so the first unit that we run in term 1 for Year 7 it is GM Crops. Below it we then have the big idea that the unit is exploring. So essentially we indicate on the map what it is that we want kids to know as a result of this unit. Clarendon does this for the entire school from their 3 year old’s through to their senior classes in Year 10.

So, how can you build a coherent curriculum? Some final advice from Clarendon’s experience:

  • Recommend starting with one subject or year level
  • Audit your current curriculum, what do you currently actually teach, do you have a shared curriculum, include the “state” of the curriculum, so what state is the curriculum in, do you have shared curriculum materials? What exists for that curriculum? e.g. there might be a scope and sequence and that’s it, or there might be a textbook and that’s basically the curriculum for the year. The reason that’s important is it might give you an idea for how much work needs to be done with particular units for this to become a low variance curriculum. You might use a traffic light system and use post it notes to help with this, where a red post it note might mean that you have not got enough curriculum resources, an amber post it might mean it’s ok but you could use some more resourcing and green post it represents a strong currently resourced curriculum
  • Agree on the criteria for inclusion/exclusion before you start. You need to have some sort of underpinning philosophy about what goes in and what doesn’t go in, so what are you going to cut out of the curriculum. It is really important to this before you start, and the reason you are going to do it before you start is you won’t need that criteria until you really need it. As there will come a point when your team are arguing what should be kept or not in the curriculum and then at that moment you need that criteria that says what are the bases for our decision making here, i.e. what criteria are we using as this will help on what to eliminate or include in the curriculum. So agree on the criteria for inclusion/exclusion before you start.
  • But, the buck has to stop somewhere? So, when it comes to a time for a group to make a decision, and there is a stalemate, who is it exactly that has the mandate to do so, and therefore has the authority from the group to consider the group’s arguments and decide to go a particular way.
  • Decide on what is definitely out (based on your criteria), and delete them from the unit because they are not fit for purpose and don’t meet the criteria.
  • Determine any links between subject areas and change timings
  • Determine what needs to be added (confer to the Australian/state curriculum)
  • Once you have determined what needs to be added, reorder your units, move them from one year level to another, and this is where post it notes can be used to achieve this
  • Be pragmatic: So, when you are putting the curriculum map together
    • Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. There will be a temptation sometimes with units that you don’t like to take everything off, and then all of a sudden you are looking down the barrel of having to re write a whole heap of different units. It might be wiser to take a longer term view and gradually phase units out, and this links to the last point, it has to be manageable
    • You can’t do everything at once, it’s too burdensome

It’s actually ok to use a unit twice as your curriculum map is coming together. Which means the planning has already been done for another year group and potentially another group of teachers.

The building of this curriculum map is a big job, but a worthwhile one. If you are a school leader, nothing will help you gain a better understanding of what is happening in classrooms as much as being able to put your finger in the curriculum pie, to be able to see what it is that we intend to teach, even if that is not what’s enacted, what is it that we intend to teach.

So, if you have not already become a member of ThinkForwardEducators (it’s free to join),  then I encourage you to, not the least to be able to watch Reid Smith’s webinar recording, but to access the other webinar recordings and network with other educators who are interested in the hope of achieving growth in students’ social opportunities! A deeply human desire to improve students’ social opportunities by focussing on what the evidence and research says works, and therefore, is in the best interests of the students under our care.

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Creating a school culture where teaching and learning thrive!

– Here is a list of resources grounded in research informed effective practices that will help create school cultures where classrooms thrive.

  • This short blog on 10 tips for new teachers from the Deputy Head Jonathan Porter at Michaela Community School in Wembley, London is GOLD –

The Power of Culture with Pritesh Raichura is a podcast from Naylor’s Natter – from 1 hour 27 mins in hear Pritesh Raichura from Michaela talk in depth about the underlying values cultivated at the school

  • This 10 post blog round up on Behaviour from Tom Sherrington contains so much wisdom

  • This is a podcast where Darren Leslie interviews Barry Smith a founding leader at Michaela School, about Transforming School Culture

And this from a Charter Teacher on How Teaching Manners Transformed The School

  • Adam Boxer’s blog on the negative participatory effect of calling out answers in a class “A student who puts their hand up and calls out the answer – on the face of it this isn’t really that bad, it’s not like they are deliberately trying to disturb your lesson. But disturbing it is, and it kills your class (participation) Ratio.”
  • Watch Adam Boxer deliver this wonderfully helpful video titled Setting Students up to Succeed that utilises techniques from the books Teach Like a Champion and Get Better Faster
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