Retrieval ‘for’ learning

“Forgetting focuses remembering and fosters learning; remembering generates learning and causes forgetting; learning causes forgetting, begets remembering, and supports new learning.”                                                                                                   Bjork (2015)

Our ultimate goal as teaching professionals is for children to acquire all the necessary learning, and more if possible, efficiently and securely. Having an understanding of the theories behind how the working memory works and how we build schema (assimilating and accommodating new learning) allows us to explore the most effective ways for the learner to obtain and consolidate new knowledge.

Daniel Willingham’s memory model provides a brilliant visual representation of how our mind retains and deals with new information; this links with Robert Bjork’s quote above; I understand it as learning causes forgetting, forgetting causes remembering, and remembering causes new learning. This remembering “part” is essential to ensure acquired knowledge can be easily brought back to memory: this is retrieval.

Retrieval strength and storage strength

Bjork (2015) refers to retrieval as a ‘memory modifier’ as using our memories can alter our memories. Think about how retrieving something more frequently than something else would alter the state of both of those items: one being more accessible and usable than the other.  

Robert Bjork’s and Elizabeth Bjork’s Theory of disuse (1992) categorises an item in memory into two ‘strengths’: retrieval strength and storage strength. Retrieval strength refers to how quickly and accessible that item is to be recalled; the latter refers to how well that item has been learnt. So you might be thinking about the need to increase retrieval strength and storage strength; however, that is not necessary the case.

Bjork (2015) states that when something is accessed very often, little to no learning takes place. This could be largely down to recency. Therefore, if we use what we know about the benefits of forgetting and the importance of separating opportunities to retrieve through space and time, this will create desirable difficulties, thus, building storage strength which relates to permanent changes in learning.

Retrieval cues

Another consideration when planning retrieval tasks is to think about cues: context and state. Context refers to external cues (like environment and other external factors that supported the encoding of that knowledge) whereas state refers to internal cues (emotional, physical and mental state). Godden & Baddeley (1975) conducted an experiment where two groups had to memorise a series of words, one group being under water and the other on land. When recall took place in a different location (context) from where they had learnt (e.g. the scuba divers recalling on land), recall was poorer. Therefore, it’s worth considering the impact of their setting; for example, learning something in Science but then recalling it in Forest school, and vice versa. State cues could be how you’re feeling at the time of learning, considering your emotional, physical and mental state; therefore, returning to the same physiological and emotional state when a memory was formed can help recall that memory (White, 2003). Goodwin (1995) explains how it is not uncommon to hear stories of drinkers who stash alcohol or money while intoxicated and then can locate the hiding places once being intoxicated again.  

Thinking about retrieval

Understanding the importance of prior learning and the pre-requisites is key for new learning to be built upon. Having this awareness better prepares us so that we can plan in specific questions, tests and tasks that activate a child’s prior learning. This can act as a desirable load demanding the individual to resurface the forgotten information, remembering it in more detail, and then applying it to the new learning. With this view, we should be seeing retrieval as ‘retrieval FOR learning’ as opposed to retrieval and learning; and what I mean by this is retrieval being seen as a separate entity, an isolated part of the lesson with no particular or evident links.

Now, in contrary to this, I do understand there is a lot of benefit in retrieving facts that are not linked with the lesson of that day; quite often, the use of ‘last day, last week, last term and last year’ quadrants can be useful in agreeing some kind of spacing algorithm across the school to support forgetting and remembering. However, the dangers following this approach is that this can constrain teachers to neglect many opportunities to retrieve prior learning as the pre-requisites for the day’s new learning intention. And I believe this premise greatly correlates with a strong, well-threaded curriculum.

Let me talk to you about my refined purpose for planning retrieval (aside from the obvious: to strengthen memory).

Figure 1: Retrieval development across a threaded curriculum

Consider the diagram above (Figure 1) as a representation of my thinking. The elongated bar at the bottom represents a year group from September to July; in this instance, let’s say Year 1. Now, during this period, they are taught a new concept (in yellow). If we could just focus on retaining this information, it would be wonderful to be able to spend all of the following year (Year 2) having hour long (just for argument sake) retrieval maths, reading, writing lessons so that learning is well embedded (enhancing the storage strength). However, of course, we need to teach new learning. So the question is, how do we incorporate retrieval (knowing how valuable it is) alongside new learning. This is where careful and meticulous curriculum design comes into play.

Let’s say the yellow box represents the learning of recognise and sort 2-D shapes. Well, for this knowledge to develop, the curriculum needs to consider how will this knowledge in Year 1 be built upon/ aid the new knowledge in Year 2, then develop further into Year 3 and so on. This is the thread of our spiral curriculum. The concept applies to all subjects, like in humanities, what is the thread of the curriculum? If one year group learns about Roman civilisation and then learns about the Great Fire of London, teachers and children may find it difficult to find links (thinking about the surface facts like dates, locations etc.); however, having a number of threads running through the curriculum that centres around a particular theme will help this (e.g. technological development or inspirational leaders), then these threads are what inform what should be retrieved, identifying similarities and differences across other eras (how does the impact of Trajan’s leadership in Rome compare with the indecisiveness of the Lord Mayor during the Great Fire of London); retrieving for learning.

This idea builds upon the children’s prior knowledge, often first retrieving key facts and dates but then requiring them to retrieve deeper meaning about what they know about the impact of say the leadership, thus, then using their working memory to explore how this memory links to new learning; modifying their memory and increasing their storage strength.

So looking at the arrows on Figure 1, a way to consider retrieval is through the following 4 steps (Figure 2) (this has a broad reference to Fiorella’s and Mayer’s Generative Learning SOI model):

  1. Select (facts and/or procedure)                     Select
  2. Practice                                                          Organise
  3. Application (within context)                           Integrate
  4. Application (across contexts)                         Integrate
Figure 2: The four stages of retrieval

This allows a good progression for learning to be remembered, forgotten, remembered and then strengthened as they broaden their schema making further and stronger links of meaning.  

Here’s an example.

  • Year 1’s Learning intention: Recognise and sort 2-D shapes
  • Year 2’s Learning intention: Identify properties and draw 2-D shapes

Once the children have grasped how to recognise and sort 2-D shapes, let’s consult the 4 stages in preparation for Year 2’s learning intention.

1. Select

If it is necessary to recap this surface level, then retrieval questions like “Name this shape,” or “Match the words to the correct shapes” will allow the children to just select from their long term memory.

2. Practice

Perhaps in the previous retrieval they were able to select the information but had low retrieval strength (needed the adult to give further clues), then you may wish to use the retrieval to encourage more practice of retrieving these facts like “Complete the words and then match to the shapes” or “Sort the 2-D shape names into 4 sides vs not 4 sides” (children needing to recall the shape picture and associate it to the written word).

3. Application

Now, for me, this is where the thought around retrieval really takes some further thinking but is extremely valuable because we are now encouraging children to retrieve the same information but to use it to apply to something else. E.g. “Half of the shape is missing, only a corner is showing, what shape could it be” or “Here are some objects (box, Doritos tube, pencil pot etc.), what 2-D shapes can you see on the 3-D objects” or “Thinking of shape names, sort the shapes in alphabetical order, then in order of sides.”

4. Application (across contexts)

This is where we can encourage the children to retrieve the information, but retrieve its deeper meaning as developed in the previous step and that they see how it can be applied elsewhere, making it more secure and adaptable e.g. “Using double sided counters, what expression would make a square or a rectangle,” or “In forest school, use the sticks to create a triangle inside a square,” or “In P.E, dribble with the ball in the shape of a triangle.”

There are certainly links between this step and the concept of reasoning, and perhaps, this is a type of reasoning, but this process requires meticulous thinking around what exactly do they know and how much further we can deepen this learning through proximal transference: a contextual retrieval link that activates this specific part of learning


For your retrieval slots, thinking about questions that retrieve prior learning is of course the whole point, but it is worth giving consideration to see what parts of the learning you are encouraging the children to retrieve, thinking beyond just selecting the information but creating a desirable load that requires children to really thinking deeply about the meaning behind the learning in preparation for the next stage of their new learning. Ultimately, there is far more meaning that we intend to impart through teaching which only a small percentage of it is well and truly understood. By only planning opportunities for pupils to select this surface information means less time to retrieve the depths of meaning and increases more time for learning to be forgotten and become some-what inaccessible.

So for teachers, think about the pre-requisites and prior knowledge they have learnt the year before that needs to be retrieved to strengthen their storage, but after teaching the new learning, subsequently consider the 4 stages of retrieval throughout the rest of the year in preparation for this to be built upon again the following year or the next time you return to that thread.

Additional examples

Initial objective: sequencing numbers

  1. Complete the sequence of numbers.
  2. Complete the 3rd and 5th sequence of numbers.
  3. On a bus timetable, there are a 4 stops. It takes me 5 minutes to get to the stop. What is the latest time I can leave home if there was a 5th stop?
  4. Creating a graph in science, choose appropriate intervals to accommodate the sequence of data.

Initial objective: learning about the order of planets and gas giants

  1. Recap the mnemonic.
  2. Identify the 3rd planet from Earth (away from the Sun); identify the 2nd planet closest to the sun from Neptune.
  3. Which position are the gas giants? Which planets will orbit the sun faster than Saturn?
  4. Learning about forces, use your knowledge of north and south poles on magnets to represent practically the solar system demonstrating the gravitational pull.

Initial objective: long division

  1. Explain the process; or complete division questions.
  2. Divide with 2 digits, doubling the 2 digit divisor each time and noticing what happens with the quotient.
  3. Improving efficiency with the process, focusing on editing and improving the steps from an example e.g. to speed up the division process, work on strengthening multiplication strategies, so rather than only multiplying by 10 and then if not, doing repeated addition to get close to the first expression, children to practise finding 9 lots by multiplying by 10, minus 1, or doubling and halving, or using knowledge of constant ratio to find close multiples of the divisor in a more efficient way.
  4. Represent each step of the long division process through a bar model.
Further reading recommendations
  • Bjork, R. & Bjork, E. (1992) A new theory of disuse and an old theory of stimulus fluctuation
  • Bjork, R. (2015) On the symbiosis of remembering, forgetting and learning
  • Enser, M. & Enser, Z. (2020) Fiorella & Mayer’s Generative Learning in Action (In Action series)
  • Godden, D. & Baddeley, A. (1975) Context-dependent memory in two natural environments: on land and underwater
  • Jones, K. (2019) Retrieval Practice
  • Jones, K. (2021) Retrieval Practice 2

Unboxing vocabulary

“Writing is an extension of memory.” (Willingham, 2017)

The written language is a relatively new concept in the history books, compared with the existence of speech; it is used to permanently capture and store one’s memory.

Writing is a coding system that allows meaning to be shared and understood, spanning from logographics (Hieroglyphics as an example) to a lettering system (and logograms) that we are familiar with today. Although, the variety of letter sequences forming a word of meaning is dependent on the community, language and context that it relates to (for example, ‘toga’ in English (although originating from Latin) means a loose garment worn by the citizens of Rome, but rearrange the letters to spell ‘gato’ and now constitutes a different meaning in a different language: meaning cat in Spanish).

I have added some suggestions for books and academics I would highly recommend that would greatly support one’s understanding of the integral role vocabulary plays in our every day teaching. The list is not exhaustive by any means but a sample of some that I have found particularly useful.

I strongly believe promoting the love (see my blog “Vocabulary is delicious“) and supporting the development of vocabulary in the classroom will directly aid reading and writing.

Tiered vocabulary

You may well be very familiar with Tiered vocabulary by Beck, Kucan and McKeown; if not, it is the idea that Tier 1 categorises your basic words that are used most commonly through speech, primarily learned through conversation. Tier 2 categorise your more academic words found in a number of contexts that often help to convey greater clarity for specific meaning. Tier 3 categorises your domain-specific vocabulary.

For example:

  • Tier 1: was, got, came
  • Tier 2: challenge, contradict, eliminate
  • Tier 3: hydraulics, transpiration

This is extremely useful when considering how vocabulary could/should be interwoven across your whole curricula. Of course, it is an extensive task, so it is important teachers are well informed so they can spend time and effort highlighting specific words and phrases, especially through every day dialogue.

For instance, rather than always saying “Ok, now get your pencils and write the date,” replace this with “Ok, please retrieve your pencils and record the date.” Or, rather than “Sit up straight please,” replace with “Ameliorate your posture please.”

Planning your vocabulary lessons

First and foremost, vocabulary generation must be planned collaboratively. It is an excellent opportunity to sit down within your team and generate a body of vocabulary that can be specific to your class whilst adding challenge (focusing on the Tier 2 words predominantly). Figure 1, 2, 3 and 6 are examples of teachers’ workbooks.

Note: the vocabulary generated with the children always exceeded the amount prepared.

It is fundamental this is prepared prior to the lesson as this will reduce your working memory (trying desperately to think of new vocabulary on the spot) and allow you to focus on managing the room: we all can recall moments when we’re trying to draw blood from a stone, so let’s prepare in order to overcome this!

I will describe my process that has proven to be successful within my school.

When considering your vocabulary lesson progression, consider the following 6 steps:

  • Step 1: Choose your focus
  • Step 2: The obvious
  • Step 3: Unboxing vocabulary
  • Step 4: Enhance
  • Step 5: Take it further
  • Step 6: Build your sentences

I have detailed two examples below that myself and my colleagues have used with the children. The necessity of vocabulary generation is embedded across all year groups for every unit of work so six steps can be applied across the age range; it is the level of vocabulary and the complexity of the sentence construction that differs.

The two examples below have derived from specific narrative foci; however, I have included a vocabulary generated example for a non-fiction unit too later on.

Example 1

Think carefully about the types of vocabulary you want to generate. Ensure you allow time for the children to have plenty of practice experimenting with and learning new vocabulary; for us, we carried out this lesson in the first week so the children could practise across the two subsequent weeks of the unit. This helped with the element interactivity effect (links to Cognitive Load Theory) by reducing the amount of elements the children needed to process when it came to their independent writing: they could focus their energy on carefully selecting which is best to convey the meaning, as opposed to rummaging through their vocabulary repertoire which can be daunting for those less confident.


I do strongly believe that before children can have the opportunity to experiment and even break some conventional writing rules (i.e. manipulating language and sentence structure to emphasise meaning), it is important that we provide bitesize ingredients that help children understand how to create cohesion and achieve a number of skills. For example, we teach that sentences require a noun and a verb, but writing a single abstract noun followed by a full stop (Frightened.) can have a bigger impact on the reader. Below is an example of how we can break down the skill of personification: nouns + verbs

Figure 1: Positive abstract nouns
Step 1: Choose your focus

The writing focus was to describe character and atmosphere. For this lesson, we were focusing on personifying abstract nouns, and to extend, we decided to include collective nouns to exaggerate.

Step 2: The obvious

The first part of the vocabulary was to generate positive emotions (easier for the children to start with), followed by negative emotions. Here, we generated synonyms and other nouns that portray positivity. Depending on your skill focus, you could decide to focus on generating a list of adjectives, alternative nouns etc. Note: As you can see in Figure 1, we started with the abstract nouns in the middle of the page. Although the sentence would be created with a collective noun first (hence needing to be on the left-hand side of the page), abstract nouns was the easier heading to start with.

Step 3: Unbox the vocabulary

Once we had generated enough, we then moved on to verbs, for example, dance. Quite often, when you are generating vocabulary with the children, they will give you similar words following the class’s train of thought. Although these are a good start to the get the ball rolling, the generation soon finds itself at a dead end. So, this is when the vocabulary needs to be unboxed. Offer another verb that shifts their thinking and begins a new train of thought. For example, “Let’s think of verbs that now show the emotion taking over, for example, engulfed.” This resets the room with children now suggesting the following: swallowed, enveloped, devoured, encapsulated and so on. Some were even better than what was originally prepared. Great!

Step 4: Enhance

This is the opportunity to replace common vocabulary with better alternatives (zooming in and zooming out); for example, zooming in on different parts and features, zooming out to see how this links on the whole, then zooming back in but even further, focusing on a specific word to improve. An example of this is detailed in Example 2, later on.

Step 5: Take it further

This is the opportunity to add an additional layer to the sentence construction by generating additional words or phrases that will enhance the meaning. In this example (Figure 1 and 2), you can see we added a third category, collective nouns. The children can then use the collective nouns to quantify the personified sentences.

Step 6: Build your sentence

Always allow time for the children to ‘join the dots’ with the vocabulary and generate sentences. This can be done at the end or in smaller chunks throughout the lesson; orally or written. It is a great way to discuss how specific choices of language will alter meanings.

You’ll note that between Figure 1 and 2, the verb drowned appears in both. Through discussion, the children soon realised that drowning is commonly associated with a negative feeling so most children avoided this for Figure 1 (although more aspiring writers were challenged to explore how negative emotions could drown by the overpowering nature of more positive emotions).

Figure 1 details a model sentence whereby the teacher would demonstrate how choosing one from each category can achieve the intended effect. This is a great opportunity to discuss why some choices are better than others whilst allowing for evident scaffolding and enrichment. For example, children who find it difficult can choose from the board to build phrases; those who are ready for their learning to be extended can combine further skills (adverbials or prepositional phrases) to the beginning or the end of their sentences.

Figure 2: Negative abstract nouns

Example 2

Figure 3: An example of vocabulary generation for conveying character innocence (The Big Bad Wolf)

For this writing unit, the focus was on character description to convey innocence. The children would tell the story from the Big Bad Wolf’s perspective (in the modern day) on the events that happened: one week we focused on Little Red Riding Hood; the other week we then focused on The Three Little Pigs. Again, we invested time generating the above vocabulary (Figure 3) so the children could experiment and practise.

Step 1: Choose your focus

Knowing we wanted to focus on the Wolf, we decided to focus on his appearance. We broke it down into four main features: Teeth, Eyes, Nose and Fur.

Step 2: The obvious

We focused on generating as many concrete adjectives, and some alternative nouns, as we could for each feature, so for example, for Teeth, we came up with sharp, white, yellow and stained.

Step 3: Unbox the vocabulary

Once we had generated enough, we then moved on to abstract adjectives, for example, unsettling and daring. I then needed to shift the train of thought again and unbox the next set of vocabulary. For example, “Let’s think of abstract adjectives, for example, the menacing teeth.” This reset the room followed by suggestions like dangerous, intimidating, horrifying, misleading and so on.

Step 4: Enhance

Once you have generated concrete and abstract nouns, choose one or two you could up-level: zoom-in to the word. In this example, the word white is a word the children are comfortable using. For this lesson, I wanted them to experiment portraying and enhancing this image. I circled white and generated alternative words and phrases; for example, pale vs glistening, an ivory tusk, a dove’s feather, tip of a wave’s crest and freshly plucked cotton.

Step 5: Take it further

Once you have generated your descriptive language, how might we use it? This links well with generating personification and other figurative phrases. Generate verbs that enhance these features. For example, “What are the eyes doing?” They could be scanning, glancing, gazing, spying, fixating. Then I would unbox the next part, by saying, “What are the eyes physically doing? Could they be suspended?” (especially when showing his poisoned eyes suspended in the shadows). This followed with examples like hanging, clutching, hovering and so on.

Step 6: Build your sentence

When scaffolding, I prepared a short phrase by combining a selection of adjectives: The spherical, golden balls of poison. I prepared to take it further by including a verb using more of the ingredients on the page: The soul-piercing baubles scanning for flesh. This was up levelled further by combining other skills, previously learnt, with the current vocabulary: Emerging from the bushes, the points of the jagged ivory tusks greeted the locals (conveying the wolf’s innocence through a simple smile which could be seen by others as horrifying).

Working wall

After generating all this work with the children under the visualiser or interactive white board, be sure to leave it present on your working walls so the children can continue to access and add to it. This helps to minimise the transient effect (links to Cognitive Load Theory). Figure 4 is an example of how one class captured vocabulary and example sentences on their working wall. This was added to as the unit progressed.

Figure 4: Example of a working wall

Below (Figure 5) is an example of a finished working wall at the end of a unit. The children were empowered throughout the unit by working with the teacher to build this extensive bank of vocabulary to describe the sun, sea, sand and trees. They were able to navigate and choose precisely and purposefully.

Figure 5: An earlier example of a finished working wall

Other examples

Setting description – building tension
Figure 6: An example of vocabulary generated for a setting description (a portal). Note: scratches = scratched.
Reporting – A newspaper article about a building blast (WW2 link)
Figure 7: Generating vocabulary that conveys how the building was loved before VS the destruction and what it symbolises now

Further reading

  • Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction by Beck, Kucan and McKeown
  • The Reading Mind: A Cognitive Approach to Understanding How the Mind Reads by Daniel Willingham
  • Closing the Vocabulary Gap by Alex Quigley
  • Write like a Ninja: An essential toolkit for every young writer by Andrew Jennings with contributions from Alan Peat
  • The Learning Spy blog page by David Didau
  • Making Meaning in English: An exploration of the role of knowledge in language and literature by David Didau
  • Vocabulary Ninja: Activities to Unlock a World of Words by Andrew Jennings
  • Jumpstart Spelling and Vocabulary: Engaging Activities for Ages 5-12 – Jumpstart! by Pie Corbett and Carol Satterthwaite
  • Talk for Writing
  • Alan Peat’s sentence structures

Delicious vocabulary

First and foremost, if you haven’t seen this BBC Radio 2 video recording of the famous Stephen Fry expressing the love of language, I urge you to watch it now.

I have always strongly advocated that writing is a form of art. Through recording our own thoughts and feelings via letters, diary entries, text messages and so on, to painting a mental realm of scenarios and adventures that lure us away from reality, it embodies personal, professional, political and societal views.

Isn’t is just fascinating how a sequence of logograms/ letters and words have the ability to convey meaning, manipulate, influence and connect with everyone. Do we explicitly share this admiration and awe of language with the children?

We should!

Quite often, whether it is pre-teaching vocabulary for the reading lesson or just sharing excitement for language, instead of asking the children to write down their “favourite word” from the pre-teach list, I am now more specific:

“Choose two words from the list that you like the sound and feel of.”

Followed by

“Now choose two words you like the meaning of.”

This is a wonderful way to discuss how the articulation of phonemes impact how we feel about saying the word whilst also implicitly revisiting the skills of phonics.

The feel can impact the feel

During a vocabulary lesson, I was capturing and recording the class’s vocabulary suggestions about a utopia VS a dystopia. The focus was on personification. So we broke the lesson down into focusing on the nouns first, followed by the verbs. However, for this lesson, we decided it would be the change of verb that would distinguish the description between the two settings.

The heading Nouns was at the top, centre of the page. To the left, was the heading Verbs (for the utopia) and on the right of the heading Nouns, was the heading Verbs (for the dystopia).

The outcome of the lesson was for the children to have a vocabulary bank that could be applied to both stimuli.

For example,

The noun: wind.

Utopia verbs: whistle, tickled, stroked.

Dystopia verbs: roared, pounded, annihilated

Before introducing the dystopia words, I wanted to share my love for vocabulary and explain how the feel of some words can impact the feeling of the writing.

“Show of hands, who has eaten a crunchy carrot before?” To which many hands went up, accompanied by the bemusement of this question.

“Ok, who has eaten a soft, chewy sweet before?” Many hands.

“What about a crispy roast potato?” Again, many hands and the odd ‘lick-of-the-lips’ from a few.

Although these may have appeared random to the children, there was a very good reason for it.

I explained how we all have a range of textures and tastes in our foods which many of us like, but if we had the same all the time, it would be a bit boring. For me, the same principles apply to vocabulary. Using the same words affiliated to a stimulus, over and over again, can be limiting; of course we want words to be retrieved and recycled but the aim is to broaden this spiral. So using a range is far more appetising: vocabulary is delicious!

Specific example

Think about describing a feather falling elegantly, the gentle sounds of /s/, /f/ and /t/ in some examples for the words softly, swiftly, swirl and twirl feel soft against the lips with high pitch tones that feel sweet and calming to articulate. Whispering and slow physical movements can support this convention of comfort and tranquility.

However, when wanting to describe the dystopia, sounds like /d/, /g/, /c/, /ct/, /st/ in this instance require harsher emphasis for words like destruction, detonation and eradication.

Of course, this isn’t a set rule for all words but spending time to analyse the physical feel of words can help children make associations (or disassociations) with meaning and spelling.

Everyday examples

During a pre-teach vocabulary session, words like simultaneous, grotesque and capricious were highlighted. By asking the children to choose their favourite feeling of the words, many chose grotesque and capricious. Grotesque because the /que/ sound felt satisfying at the back of the throat and capricious, because the quick snap of the /c/ followed by a soothing /cious/ sound felt nice. I was then able to show the children the association of the meaning of capricious with that contrasting feeling of /c/ vs /cious/; for example, the /c/ sound indicates a harsher feeling (a more aggressive mood) yet the /cious/ feeling made us feel the opposite (showing the immediate change of mood); this helped children grasp this meaning quickly.

Embedding this love for language as part of your minute-by-minute teaching and learning experience is just another way of exposing the children to high quality vocabulary.

Give it a go, promote the delicacies of language!

Moral Purpose

Whether you are new to teaching, an experienced teacher, or in fact, a professional of any kind, you should be sure to reflect, identify and articulate your moral purpose.

Your moral purpose is the epitome of all your decision-making; whether it is the reason you go to work, see your friends, partake in hobbies or spend time with family, these are the principles that govern your every decision. But sometimes we find ourselves questioning why we do what we do.

Relating this back to a school setting, a moral purpose is often centred around the children. Which seems obvious, right? But, depending on our experiences, beliefs and attitudes, we may find ourselves in the teaching profession for a whole host of reasons.

For those who are not involved in teaching, they may guess “It’s for the holidays,” or “You do it for the money,” (I am sure you consult your inner strength to stay composed to deal with this one), and maybe for a few, that is the case. However, for most, it has something to do with making a difference.

Some want to provide a better educational experience than the one they received; some want the chance to be able to broaden at least one child’s experiences; some find how a hidden part of them comes to life in the classroom setting; and some just love the interaction with curious minds. Whatever your reason is, be clear and true to yourself.

I often ask colleagues, new and current, what their moral purpose is. Quite often, I am issued with a small pause followed with an answer that lacks confidence and assertion. However, for me, I truly want the curtain to be unveiled to see what drives your minute by minute decision-making. It allows me to determine how receptive you will be to learning and feedback, how willing you will be to add value to the educational offer, and how determined you will be to overcome the number of changes and challenges that regularly come our way. And for the majority, the above is positively evident.

Knowing your moral purpose will not only help with explaining why you want to be a teacher or leader (for job interviews or simply reminding yourself why this is the profession for you) but will make most of your decisions, especially the difficult ones, must easier to make. You won’t be so worried whether you should suggest an idea or challenge one when you have your moral purpose propping you up: if you know it’s what’s best for your children, and it resonates with your moral purpose, you’ll have no issues fighting for it.

I have had many debates in the past about what is best for our children, but always upon reflection, I leave smiling with admiration about how passionate my team are to fight (constructively and professionally, I might add) for what they believe in – I am regularly in awe.

It also makes you more open to suggestions and support as you are far more prepared to try new things, seek new, innovative, efficient and effective methods as well as actively seeking feedback. I am often asking my colleagues to provide me with constructive feedback as it fuels my desire to improve as well as helping me to unpick my reflections and better my practice: and I daren’t defy my moral purpose!

A rabbit hole (you might be wondering), it’ll never be perfect! Surely the pursuit for the perfect classroom is a mirage? But that’s the difference between when I first started in education to where I am now: I am all about valuing and improving the journey, not seeking the destination. This brings variability into my practice, enhances my methods and keeps me enlightened to learning.

How wonderful is the thought that through a child’s journey, they will be under the wing of an array of inspirational teachers all governed by principles that have the child’s interests and development at its core. This is the culture we so long for.

Enriching the journey is better than rushing to the destination.

Know your moral purpose: the principles that make you, you!

Complete the Circuit

In my blog “The Invisible Lead Balloon”, I highlighted a number of informed strategies that could be used to maintain engagement for learning. Once you feel confident employing these strategies, the next thing is to question, then decide, which are best to ensure children are engaged with learning.

It is important to note that engagement doesn’t always result in ‘noise’; children can be fully engaged and immersed whilst silent. Through one of my regular, thought provoking conversations with @RumblesCandyce, we posed the analogy of learning being ‘electrical currents’. We all use and rely on many appliances that are powered by electricity. When you plug an appliance/ device into the wall, you know it is receiving electrical current to charge and/or operate it despite not being able to actually see the current. But you still know it is happening. For us, this is learning in action.

Below, I provide some images that could be useful for teachers to refer to when evaluating teaching and learning in their classroom.

With the teacher being the electrical source and the children acting as the conductors, our ultimate goal is to ensure we create, establish and maintain strong, healthy, positive pathways (connections if I may) to allow the electrical current (learning) to flow. The teacher checks for understanding, thus, completing the circuit.

Small sparks: Where teachers may begin

Consider Figure 1. A teacher delivers the input, interacts with one or two children (often the more confident ones) within their line of sight, and patrols only up and down the middle corridor of the class.  Only a few sparks for learning may be happening.

The teacher may use this small sample to inform whether there is a good level of understanding and whether their input is being interpreted as intended. As Dylan Wiliam explains in ‘What Does This Look Like in the Classroom’ (Hendrick and Macpherson, 2017), a “more serious issue, is that teachers are making decisions about what to do next with a class based on evidence only from confident students”. This would skew the validity of their assessment.

Being simply aware of our eye movements in the class can be a great starting point when improving practice.

Hendrick and Kirschner (2020) in ‘How Learning Happens’ highlight the work from Van Den Bogert (2016) where eye-movements of an expert and a novice teacher are tracked: “the larger the spot the longer the gaze; also, the opacity of the centre gives the intensity…” Without seeing the image example, the spots are representing all parts of the room, demonstrating the difference that experts tend to be able to scan the room frequently, not just glancing, and then zooming in to every child to check for understanding at different points.

More sparks: progress

Here in Figure 2, we now see the teacher begin interacting with pupils outside their centre line of sight. By interacting and checking for understanding from the front and other angles of the classroom, the teacher can gather a broader picture and spark further thought for learning. This encourages more actives learners (solid green) and influences those nearby (light green).

Circuit complete:

In Figure 3, we now see the teacher having a clearer sense of what is happening. This could be through active discussion and participation, or perhaps, children working silently but deep levels of thinking are evident. Through a number of strategies, the teacher checks understanding in all corners of the room, feeds the ‘student buy-in’ culture by allowing questions, discussions, collaboration and risk-taking, offering scaffolds and extensions where needed to keep the current flowing.


Now here we see the current affected: an interference.

Not everyone is conducting the current of learning.

This can appear as children struggling to answer, perhaps feeling the pressure of their peers, shutting down, or perhaps this is during a silent independent task and knowing your children well, you spot (even sense) someone who is stuck or trying to mask their understanding through a number of coping mechanisms. This is when you intervene!

Through the positive culture you have created, you can afford to compromise pace and provide them with more thinking time.

Within the open forum of your class, ensure you extinguish the pressure (for example, “I can see why you might be thinking hard here as it is an interesting point.”) but also thank the class “Well done everyone for waiting for James as I know you value what he has to say.”

Then consider the following below:

  • Provide stem sentences or multiple choice;
  • Remind them: “I (even better, we) value your thoughts”;
  • Lead them in “I was thinking this, do you agree? And why?”;
  • Ask them to say who they agree or disagree with;
  • Ask them to point to which part of the worked example they find difficult.

If still nothing, then consider the following to maintain the “No opt out” philosophy (Doug Lemov):

  • Allow them to write or draw their answer;
  • Share their idea with a partner or TA who could share aloud;
  • Give them more time to think about it – “Have a think about your sentence and then you can tell me when I come over.”
  • Get back on track with the lesson – move on to take the focus away.

Once you’ve got a contribution, be sure to hear it and express its value to the child; no matter how small it may be, I am sure you can find some value within it. Then encourage the strategies above (over time) in order for them to feel confident to contribute to the whole class.

Alternatively, if you notice this barrier to learning during independent tasks, this is where you provide your support, scaffolds, extensions and ensure you determine and deal with the cause of the problem, not the symptoms. For example, for a child not appearing to write anything for some time, rather than say “You should be writing”, determine why, strip it back, what is it they are stuck with and then support them as required. On the other hand, a child who is finished and staring our the window, provide them with your planned extensions, ask them to review, unpick, explain and improve. A child waiting for the rest of the class to finish is neither productive nor beneficial – this would suggest a performance orientated attitude to learning as opposed to Mastery.

New source:

This is the ultimate goal: fuelling a new source. Children to take charge of their learning, lead the discussion, share their experiences, thoughts and achievements, whilst welcoming and valuing feedback. I am not suggesting children would lead a lesson; however, say in a Science lesson you have provided an image or video of how current flows through an electrical circuit (keeping in theme with this blog), in the positive and welcoming environment established, the child may say “Ah, that is similar to circulatory system.” This then sparks connections. Another child then adds “Oh yes, so the blood has to travel from the heart and go back to the heart to complete a circuit,” followed with “So then the organs could represent the components?” from another child. At this point, you can take it further by building upon it and using it as a new referencing through out the lesson.

As a teacher, this would be a golden moment.

The Invisible Lead Balloon

We all know and understand the importance of careful, well-thought out planning and preparation that lays the stage for the magic of learning to happen.

I remember early on in my teaching career, I would spend a long time ensuring I had mitigated against the potential barriers to learning as well as the step-by-step progression of what I felt was needed (i.e. different types of questioning; appropriate tasks; effective deployment of TA etc.) in order for the intended learning outcome to be obtained. The lesson begins: I am feeling confident, prepared and determined I will shape the children’s learning one step further. However, mid-way through this particular writing lesson (generating vocabulary for a stimulus), I am struggling for contributions, needing more hands up, noticing the haze casting across the children’s vision. Fearing the lack of engagement, I provide some words in the hope this snow balls further, but no, it was like trying to get blood from a stone – engagement for learning was going down like a “lead balloon”.

Although there are a number of things I would do differently knowing what I now know from the abundance of research that is readily available to us all, I have found across my career, in both a teaching and leadership capacity, that these mid-lesson crisis moments happen. Quite often, this comes down to focusing too much on What do I need to do? as the teacher, rather than What do they need to do? as the learner. We need to blow engagement back into that balloon.

My general recommendation for a starting point would be the following:

  • Teach 3-5 minutes;
  • Practice (learner to digest/ have-a go) – Individually or in partners;
  • Check understanding – questioning, discussion etc. (general consensus);
  • Teach 2-4 minutes OR address (if needing to address, go back to step 1);
  • Practice;
  • Check understanding – (general consensus);
  • Independent practice;
  • Check understanding (individual);
  • Prepare to address (if needed) or extend.

The above would only be a starting point as these timings would change depending on the content and context; however, this process is generally a good starting point.


First, we need to be aware of the indicators to check attention is present. This is what I like to call “Response for learning”. That moment when the deafening silence absorbs the children and dampens your spoken word. You’ll notice children begin to gaze across the room, doodle, perhaps hand-on-face, lowering themselves into the chair. Or perhaps in a group scenario, you notice passive learners, sitting back, with those more confident running the show. More often than not, the temperature in the room has increased; you’ll notice jumpers off, sips from their bottle, fanning themselves in extreme circumstances. And when you do start to choose children to contribute (how ever long this is since they have unintentionally switched off), there’s that panic from those around unsure of what was said, by whom and in reference to what. Of course, we ideally want to be proactive with our strategies that support learning, but realistically, time does get away from us so we need to be prepared to react promptly to the above.


Teacher-pupil and peer-peer relationships are key for engagement. As I heard from Doug Lemov discussing this with Craig Barton on Mr Barton Maths Podcast, “The children won’t care what we say, until they know that we care”. For me, this is the epitome of supporting children’s learning, especially those who find it difficult to engage. When we consistently model and promote positivity for collaboration, discussion, debate and explanations, children begin to realise this is truly the expectation of the room. Be mindful how you choose children because if you regularly choose children to prove whether they are listening or not i.e. John, can you tell me what we have just discussed as you appear to be taking “notes”…, your first question to those that are timid may be perceived as a reprimand rather than a genuine question of curiosity or an invite to the class discussion.

It’s evident that effective classroom strategies sit on a bed of positive culture.

  • Do the children feel safe to share?
  • Do the children feel valued?
  • Do the children know they will receive immediate feedback because you want them to improve, not just because they are wrong?
  • Is your body language and are your facial expressions welcoming and inviting?
  • Are you modelling how their answers can be used and responded back into the class or into the learning process?

Using some of the strategies below will contribute to this learning culture and hopefully begin the journey of shifting motivation from extrinsic to instrinic, with the hope of shifting from performance orientation to mastery orientation (Pintrich, 2000, cited in Kirschner & Hendrick’s (2020) ‘How Learning Happens’). You can also hear my thoughts and colleagues’ views on this book here.


For me, this is really important. With careful considerations to Cognitive Load Theory being in the quest to “Eliminate Extraneous Load and optimise Intrinisic Load” (Ollie Lovell), children regularly surprise me at how well they respond to faster inputs. This is, of course, dependent on their prior learning and complexities of the new learning, but in contrary to the complexities, if we have broken the learning down enough, it should be quicker and easier to absorb. With lesson designs, particularly like vocabulary generation and Maths fluency focus, the lesson can be moved on faster than perhaps a history or R.E lesson. Although, I would argue that you could still break down key dates, prominent figures, attributes etc. that could be retrieved, discussed, written down and explored in a timely manner. With the examples below, in some cases, I would employ as short bursts aiming for 10 seconds, 20 seconds being maximum. This helps me introduce a number of strategies throughout the lesson that keeps engagement high whilst not taking any longer than it needs.

  • Partner talk (see below).
  • Bounce off – Child A shares their thoughts, then they choose child B and so on.
  • Choose your best 3 that you like the meaning of.
  • Choose your favourite word that you like the feel and sound of when you say it.
  • Which date (or fact) sticks with you the most?
  • Which fact is harder to remember?
  • On a whiteboard, circle your favourite.
  • Point to left wall if you think X, point forward if you think Y etc.


Similar to Dylan Wiliam’s remark about how he should have used the term “responsive teaching” rather than formative assessment (Hendrick & Macpherson, 2017), I refer to questioning in this instance as “Response to learning”.

Rosenshine’s ‘Principles of Instruction’ highlights “asking questions” and “checking for understanding” as two key principles. This is crucial in determining whether the children are/were engaged in the delivery and how they have understood and interpreted (Piaget’s theory of cognitive development: ‘assimilation’ and ‘accommodation’) that information. There are a number of ways to capture this information whilst maintaining engagement. Here are just some of many:

  • What is the 1 key thing you’ve remembered on your whiteboard?
  • What question can you think of?
  • Using fingers or whiteboard to engage in multiple choice (e.g. show me 1 finger for this word vs 2 fingers for this word being more effective)
  • Why do you think that?
  • Why is this better than Jane’s answer?
  • What have you noticed? (patterns with number, shape; root words, prefixes/suffixes; dictators across history)

The term “cold calling” is extremely prevalent at the moment (or ‘warm-calling’ when thinking about how it contributes to culture as referenced by Michael Pershan), although the practice has existed in many classrooms for years. Doug Lemov in Teach Like a Champion explains the premise behind this and what this looks like in practice. I’d highly recommend reading the TLAC blog and checking out Tom Sherrington’s blog.

Essentially, this does link to culture. Whether you choose to incorporate a “hands-down” approach or not, creating an environment where children feel confident to speak aloud, where mistakes are welcomed and risks encouraged is what will allow this questioning approach to blossom. At first, it will be daunting and you may have to invest lesson time but it will be worth it. Consider the perseverance as ‘short term gains are for the pessimist, long term gains are for the optimist’: a phrase that resonates with me, especially in leadership.

Partner talk

This is an element of cold calling but I am separating this to offer other strategies during this segment of learning. Being purposefully and already considering the seating plan, I want to encourage partner talk as another opportunity to digest. If they have understood correctly, they will regurgitate this information through their own words, providing their partner with now 2 explanations (excellent opportunities to promote oracy). This partner can then use this to support their own understanding. By sharing with the class what their partner has said will allow me to assess how well their partner has understood, how well they have understood, and taking it one step further, how well they understand by agreeing or disagreeing with their partner.

  • 5 – 10 seconds, choose, discuss, agree.
  • Share your favourite with your partner.
  • Share your weakest or most difficult to remember with your partner.
  • Give a tip to help your partner remember (it might not be the best tip, but that act of focusing on this could be enough).
  • Share with the class one point your partner has raised.
  • Share with the class one aspect you liked the most about what your partner has said.
  • With your partner, create a sentence using the following.
  • Give your partner an answer, they have to make the question.


With an ongoing discussion about the effectiveness of displays in the learning environment, we are all aware that having a board cluttered with lots of examples, printed lettering and posters creates a ‘blur’ within the environment. I know if I swapped one poster or element for another on a cluttered display board, I would highly doubt anyone would notice unless using or looking at the board intensely. So by standing in the same position, I feel that sometimes we can blur into the environment too, especially when that “lead ballon” begins to lower.

Move around, get away from the “left-hand side of your board” or from behind your visualiser stand, or worse, the teacher chair, and patrol. Show the children you’re actively listening to responses, ideas and open a public forum where those less confident can ask you a quick question as you are passing by (what you do with this links back to culture).

Pause (refill the balloon)

After all of the above, you’re keeping the balloon afloat, all children are engaged but there can come a time when all that thinking and functioning of the working memory just feels too much. Pause! Give time for the children to talk with their partner to summarise, discuss and reflect: time to add air to that balloon.

I am yet to find enough evidence and research that explores what I perceive to be an example of cognitive fatigue, but what I do feel links in the concept of “Vigilance Decrement”. This is where the ability for the child to act and deal with signals (teaching input, discussions etc.) deteriorates. If children feel overloaded, learning will be hindered. So be mindful not to sacrifice learning at the expense of engagement.


“We teach explicitly so I need to be telling them what they need to know.”

Whatever your views are and/or the pedagogy your school believes in, children still need to be engaged to receive the quality you are providing. Archer & Hughes (2011) in their book ‘Explicit Instruction’ highlight the fundamentals in eliciting responses: frequent responses; monitoring student performance; providing immediate feedback; and pace. Whether you prefer an inquiry approach to learning or explicit, direct instruction, you still need to employ the strategies that allow learners to learn, make sense of, deliberate, practise, question, argue and conclude.

There are a number of reasons and factors that constitute why lessons need to be teacher focused vs learner focused. Ultimately, the goal is for it to be learner focused, but I am aware of schools at different stages of their journey that need to focus on other priorities, such as behaviour, consistent teaching pedagogy etc. But, with the aim of all lessons to be effective for the learner, it is fundamental to consult your own classroom experience, experience of your colleagues in conjunction with other academics who provide a number of useful strategies. I would also recommend looking at the WalkThrus books (1 and 2) by Tom Sherrington and Oliver Caviglioli as these offer a number of useful strategies to enhance classroom practice. Use the examples above that best work for your children and ultimately, which will support the knowledge you intend the children to learn.

Have all the tools at your disposal to keep that “balloon afloat”.