Teach First-ers publish Maths e-book


Perhaps no other school subject commands awe quite like mathematics. ‘Awe’ is an apt word, given that maths is both respected and feared in equal measure.

Mathematics possesses the power to inspire people with a profound sense of intelligence, or a crushing sense of defeat. It can be as rewarding as it can be punishing. In maths lessons there is nowhere to hide; you got it right, or you got it wrong, and this brutal clarity excites and terrifies students.

While built on a bedrock of straightforward logic, the deluge of information encoded into every word and step of mathematical reasoning can leave novice minds utterly overwhelmed. If a small piece of this expansive mathematical knowledge is missing, a person may struggle interminably to understand everything that comes next. As a new teacher, you may find yourself working with groups of students who harbour a ‘Swiss cheese’ mathematical understanding.

Yet, it need not be this way, and what a subject it is to teach! Time and again our civilisation’s pioneers step forward to uncover nature’s secrets, only to reveal yet another unimagined link between the threads of a mathematical tapestry that underpins and directs our world. In a universe where Pi dictates the size of fish, ratios determine both musical and aesthetic beauty, with one ratio to rule them all; when a shadow can measure the entire Earth, zero can bring a submarine to its knees, insects have prime numbers and geometric shapes buried in their DNA, and Pythagoras’ theorem reveals a secret so horrifying that he and his school would kill to protect it, there can be no doubt that ours is a reality united by the patterns of mathematics. As Galileo once said, ‘The great book of nature can only be read by those who understand the language in which it is written, and that language is mathematics.’  Ours is the exciting opportunity to empower students with a deep sense and understanding of this language, and with it, the chance to read one of the greatest stories ever told.  Perhaps most exciting of all, it’s a language everyone can learn.


This is an extract from the introduction to ‘How To Start on Teach First: Maths’ published on Amazon and edited by Kris Boulton, Teach First 2011 participant.

Teach First-ers Publish E-Book

Every year, new Teach First participants reinvent the wheel: that is, they often plan and resource 20 or more new lessons a week. Despite ten years of entering classrooms, there is no systematic sharing of our best ideas, examples and resources on how to plan, resource and teach in challenging schools. At best, teachers in schools share piecemeal resources with incoming participants. Huge amounts of institutional knowledge, capacity and know-how have never been shared or stored, but lost. Never shared, that is, until now.

After 12 months of Saturday meetings, with teachers in their first and second and third and sixth years showing unbelievable commitment to the cause, some waking up at 4am, travelling down to London from around the country, from Manchester and Birmingham and Newcastle, we are ready to share our ideas.


We made a few decisions early on that shaped the book. We’d open it up and try and get 50 teachers involved in contributing. None of the authors would take any profits; any proceeds would all go back to Teach First. We wouldn’t write about theory, research or educationalists. We wouldn’t include high-level strategies or micro-technical tips and tricks.

Instead, we’d focus only on the burning questions that all new teachers need to answer. We’d only give tried-and-tested solutions. We’d include lots of anecdotal stories as to how we’d made the ideas work. And we’d share the best practical resources we had between us to take away and use from day one. We wanted every word to be as practical, concise, precise and useful as possible. And we’d ask headteachers to read it, and if they liked it, endorse it. So here’s a just little bit of what some of them said:

“Some of the stories are gold dust!”

“If you only read one book before September, read this one!”

“ I strongly recommend all Teach First trainees read this book”.

The result is not silver bullets, secret ingredients or magic formulae, but 16 tried-and-tested strategies for starting out when teaching in tough schools. It is a starting point, not an end point. Spanning NQT teachers and experienced heads of departments, the 50 or so of us who’ve ended up contributing have found it useful in improving our practice. We hope you will too.

So what makes this book different then?

Each chapter:

  • focuses on one practical, burning question.
  • suggests the one top strategy out of several options we considered.
  • clarifies how it looks when it’s not working and what success looks like.
  • answers a series of sub-questions like: ‘how do I make it work?’ and ‘but what if…’
  • shares three anecdotes of how teachers made the strategy work in their classroom.
  • takes its place as part of a distinctive, cohesive overview of effective teaching.

This overview was hotly contested between the co-writers but emerged after much debate as an interlinked but powerful overview of the 16 priorities for starting in teaching:


The idea behind all of this is to contribute to helping new teachers starting in tough schools hit the ground running from day one.


The beauty of digital publishing is that it’s always evolving. So we’ll be adapting this book and its stories. Please feel free to send in any ideas and anecdotes that you feel would improve the book, as we look to publish in print next year.

Some logistics

If you don’t have a Kindle, you can simply download the Kindle app on iphones, ipads, macs, pcs and android smartphones.


  • Kris Boulton for starting the blog in the first place, having the faith to turn it into an ebook, and for writing and editing the upcoming Maths edition!
  • Katie Ashford for unrelenting relentlessness on the knowledge grids and making sure Maths wasn’t too theoretical and English wasn’t hijacked!
  • Bodil Isaksen for keeping us both banterous and grounded in the first year reality
  • Jo O Rourke for her inspiring energy and Gearoid O Rourke and his excellent design advice
  • Hannah Obertelli for the idea to contextualise the anecdotes, lending us her flat for a planning session and awesome input throughout
  • Zahra Dharsi for tireless dedication  on the English knowledge grids
  • Bruno Reddy for juggling a family and leading KSA’s Maths department with this project
  • Matt Lloyd for convincing us to involve so many other people
  • Briar Lipson for coming up with idea for a practical handbook rather than policy paper
  • Ciaran McCaughey for the brilliant idea of clearly setting out what success looks like
  • Lorenzo McClellan for great resources, ideas putting us in touch with publishers
  • Edison Huyhnh, Tamsin Grainger, Verena Hefti, Sam Sampson for the strategic questioning that helped guide the project
  • Reuben Moore for being an honest, direct, critical and constructive friend within Teach First
  • Sam Freedman for putting us in touch with the Teacher Development Trust
  • David Weston for excellent quality assurance and robust feedback
  • Jemma South for constant support and advice
  • Alex Blanc for the front covers, content conversion and brilliant design – entirely pro bono!
  • Ruth Carney for proofreading the entire English ebook
  • Ed Vainker and Max Haimendorf for reading the book and writing endorsements whilst full time Head Teachers
  • Bex Cramer for her inspiring positivity and belief in us as young teachers
  • David Didau for sharing the idea of ‘zoom in’ and ‘zoom out’ for analysing language
  • Rosie Jahangard for inspiring me to start this blog in the very first place!

If I’ve forgotten anyone then please let me know and I’ll add them in! The dedication shown by everyone who has made this happen while teaching full-time is inspiring to me.

How do I know – and show – whether my students are making progress?



Use a simple, visual tracking tool.

“It feels like we’re all suffering from information overload or data glut, and the good news is there might be a simple solution to that, which is using our eyes more: visualising information so we can see the patterns that matter, then designing that information so that it makes more sense, or tells a story, or focuses only on what’s important.” David McCandless, 2010


“Let the dataset change your mindset”

Hans Rosling, 2009.

This summer, a group of 40 Teach First teachers are publishing an e-book for new participants on how to start on Teach First. Since 2003, over the last decade 4,000 trainees have learned to teach in some of the toughest inner-city schools in England. Now 40 of us have put our minds together to write a set of suggestions on managing behaviour, planning lessons, delivering instruction and assessing progress. One of the thorniest issues was the burning question that all teachers grapple with: how do I know whether my students are making any progress in their learning?

Since they started in 1990, Teach for America have been around for over a decade longer than Teach First, and in their book ‘Teaching as Leadership’, collated by Steven Farr from thousands of their best teachers, they recommend something they call ‘tracking’.

More successful teachers,’ says Steven Farr, ‘are nearly obsessive progress trackers. Tracking begins with a list of objectives students need to master and the tracking system indicates the extent to which each student has mastered those objectives over time. Students are motivated by the clear and transparent display and communication of their progress towards their goals.’

As a group of 15 co-writers for the book, ‘How To Succeed on Teach First’, we were both inspired and challenged by Farr’s work when it came to the question of progress. We discussed and debated the best options for assessing progress over a series of lessons. We shared our stories as to what’s worked and why with our classes. Here’s the anecdote I shared:


Online tracking turns disruption into motivation

What’s the most powerful student motivator? I used to think it was phonecalls or postcards home to parents, but whilst they help behaviour, it doesn’t sufficiently motivate effort and hard work. It’s too extrinsic – you need an intrinsic motivator to get them to really want to listen, learn and achieve. In my experience, what motivates them most is peer pressure – making their results visible to their classmates.

10.2 were, at best, distracted. They were just so talkative and interested in each other that it was nearly impossible to get them to focus. I felt bad sanctioning them as they were bright, energetic and positive young people – but they just couldn’t concentrate.

What changed it was an online spreadsheet with colour-coded grades shared on googledocs after each lesson. They could instantly see how well they’d done, and crucially, how well they’d done compared to their peers. No one liked getting a D when everyone else was on a B, just because they hadn’t put in the effort they were capable of.

Of course, this depended on good marking. It also required strong planning of the paragraphs or essays I would get them to write to keep their practice focused. But the effort it resulted in was extraordinary. One unmotivated girl had persistently got C’s and in the last lesson before the assessment, I saw her at 5pm after school. ‘Was it good sir?’ she asked eagerly. ‘Check your phone!’ I replied. She saw she’d got an A and was jubilant – everyone else would see. Instant feedback, hard work, peer pressure and online visibility had worked a treat.

As a new teacher, the starting point is to keep a tracker so you get a snapshot of who is, and who isn’t, making progress across your lessons. The next stage is to use the tracker to focus on helping certain students. The trick is keeping your data recording simple through traffic-light colour-coding – using conditional formatting for red, amber and green makes your life a lot easier, both in visibly seeing who’s making progress, and for entering results.

Ultimately, the most powerful way of using the tracker to motivate pupils is to share it with your class online. All students can see how well they’re doing, and they can compare their effort to everyone else’s. Peer pressure is an unbelievably powerful motivator. Parents can also check their child’s performance anytime, any place online. This brings parental expectation powerfully into play in the classroom. It changes everything; suddenly students in your class are a lot more motivated, because not only can they actually see their improvement, but they can see everyone else’s improvement too, and everyone else’s parents can see their performance too; and no one wants to be left behind.

You’re not ranking them in a ladder or a league table; you don’t need the raw numbers, just the colours of red, amber and green, and you can choose whether that’s for effort, attainment, progress from a baseline or a mix.

The question of progress is one of the trickiest tasks for any teacher, not just new teachers. It depends on sound planning, strong marking and a clear-sighted understanding of assessment in the subject. But the size of the prize for intrinsic motivation is huge. For schools drowning in data, visual tracking might quench our thirst for classroom insights. As this TED talk by David McCandless shows, data visualisation is beautiful.

How To Succeed on Teach First is published on Amazon Kindle in June.

‘How do I assess progress over a series of lessons?’ is chapter 16.


For 30 other education blogger’s answers to the question: “How do I know progress is happening in my classroom?” see http://blogsync.edutronic.net/

What do I need to know as a new teacher?


This project aims to publish an e-book for the 2013 cohort with practical ideas to support new participants to clear the first hurdles when they begin in the classroom.  The guide focused on the foundations of teaching practice in order to accelerate participants’ impact on pupil progress.

Every year, new participants begin in schools and end up reinventing the wheel. But between us, we now have 10 years’ collective experience of tough classrooms to share.

Please use this online space to send in three or so of your stories of what has worked and why, by Saturday April 13th at the latest: https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/tfebook

We are looking for concise, punchy stories that are targeted at and useful for new first year Teach First participants, roughly 200 words long, contextualised by year, ability and behaviour, summarised up-front, conversational and jargon-free! Here are ten examples of anecdotes, five for the general section and five for the English section:

Disruptive behaviour

[7.5/low ability/disruptive behaviour]

A strike system undercuts intimidation.

This, the head of year told me, was no ordinary year 7 class. Attention spans of about two minutes, scarily personal insults and threats, fights breaking out across all lessons, and dark notes being passed about to intimidate other students; these were issues that made managing behaviour extraordinarily difficult with just one pair of eyes.

The strike system helped me set up crystal-clear boundaries and instantaneous sanctions for crossing the line. Without it, any hope of learning was doomed. Armed with a sequential series of choices and consequences, applying the system ruthlessly and relentlessly, relying heavily on positive phonecalls and postcards at any glimmer of improving behavioural effort, I began, day by day, lesson by lesson, to turn it round. It just helped me stay calm – there was always an action I could take for any defiance, disruption or disrespect. It was incredibly draining, but with consistency, the strike system paid off, defiance began to fade, the climate became less threatening, and my classroom more encouraging for those students who just wanted to learn.


Planning lessons

[8.4/mixed ability/distracted behaviour]

Creating a simple, visual planning template saves hours each week.

I was going to burn out if I didn’t do something. It never seemed to work when I tried to use my departments’ schemes of work. I never really knew what the thinking was behind the activities. So I tried to create every scheme of work from scratch, and students did respond much better to my enthusiasm for my own ideas. But it was exhausting. Planning 20 individual lessons a week was taking me over 20 hours on the weekend, meaning late nights, 7-day weeks, 14-day fortnights and a whole half-term without a break. I was going to burn out.

The 10-minute lesson template meant I could plan all 20 lessons in about three hours, all within my free periods at school. Weekends were free again! It took time before it actually took ten minutes, and at the start it took more like 30 minutes, but over time it became so automatic that planning was a breeze. It also helped me create much more focused, effective lessons when I started with the aim and the end-of-lesson assessment.



[7.3/middle ability/good behaviour]

Evaluating resources against the impact:effort ratio saves wasted time.

After every lesson in my first half-term I asked: what was the impact on learning of each resource, and how much effort did it take to make? I quickly realised that cutting up cardsorts had a very low impact for a very high effort, and stopped doing them. Similarly, a lot of the photocopying I was doing was flooding students with unnecessary sheets. It took a lot of time, hassle and stress, but didn’t do much for learning.

On the other hand, simplicity works. A slide for the objective, homework and starter was a renewable resource that doubled up as a settler and a hook. Google images and Youtube videos were plentiful, free and accessible as well as being powerful visual stimuli. Post it notes were versatile and allowed pupils to share, see and spatialise their opinions on spectrums and charts on the board. I used images, videos and post-it notes the most, simply because they had the highest impact for the lowest effort. I have never done cardsorts since.



Icons save time and accelerate progress.

This is probably the most useful thing I’ve discovered this year.

Marking books used to take me hours as I laboriously and painstakingly scribbled out individual comments for each person’s work. With my six classes of 30 students, marking 180 books even once a week, taking roughly 5 minutes to read, check, correct and comment on each, would have taken 15 hours – a part-time job just on marking – and seemed completely unworkable. But marking only every 2 weeks seemed equally unpalatable – if they had to wait eight lessons for any feedback from me, would they actually know how to improve?

Icons take a minute per book – meaning if I wanted I could mark every pupils’ book every lesson, taking only 6 hours a week, or roughly an hour after school a day. This made me realise that what matters most is how timely the feedback is. The instant feedback was so helpful for students because they had a new target to work on every single lesson. My starters were also sorted as they could action my targets if I devised them well. More than anything else I’ve done, it has saved me hours whilst helping them improve.



[11.3/middle ability/good behaviour]

SALSA helps Year 11 get beyond formulaic writing.

11.3 started so dependent on scaffolding that they couldn’t think outside of the box. Everything they wrote about poems was formulaic and constrained. I’d mark their books and there would be a few B’s and all the rest C’s or D’s – they weren’t coming up with enough of their own thoughts.

But what works so well with SALSA is the sequential series of questions they begin to ask of themselves whenever they approach any new poem. It gives them a powerful toolkit for creating their own ideas as they work through a poem’s effects, and write down their ideas. By the end of the unit, when the exam came, they were making their own connections between form and feelings, language and themes, attitudes and ideas. They were actually responding to the poem and unravelling its many layers of meaning. In the final exam, no one got a C. They got 100% A*-B, due mainly to the SALSA structure for interpreting poetry.



[7.1/high ability/excellent behaviour]

Choosing a challenging text like Oliver Twist reaps rewards with top sets.

My department gave me a blank slate to design a unit of work on Oliver Twist for a top Year 7 set. I selected the key facts about Dickens’s biography and upbringing, and the experiences that led to him writing the serialised novel in 1837, aged just 24, just as a young Queen Victoria came to the throne. I decided what pupils should learn about 1830’s London, its poverty, criminal justice system, capital punishment, the 1834 Poor Laws and workhouse conditions. They learned about street gangs and gender inequality in detail. They learned about prejudice against Jewish merchants and the fever that Dickens’ sister-in-law died of in 1837. As we read Oliver Twist, it hit me how useful all this knowledge was for unlocking the layers of meaning in the novel. They understood why Dickens chose a poor orphan as his hero. They understood why Rose Maylie almost dies from a fever, and why Dickens ensures his character survives in fiction as he could not ensure his beloved sister-in-law could survive in life. They understood why the workhouse existed, and unraveled the mystery of why Oliver’s mother abandoned her baby to the workhouse. The interpretations in the essays these Year 7 students wrote after learning all this valuable contextual knowledge were extraordinary, as my Head of Department’s astonished look when he moderated their grades testified.



[7MD/low ability/distracted behaviour]

Sequencing then interleaving helps strugglers remember their spellings. 

I started off with 10 words a week from this database. We’d do 10 in the first lesson of the week as a quiz, then they’d learn those 10 for homework, and do a test on those 10 in the second lesson of the week. The instant feedback really motivated them, to the extent that most of the class was coming early to lessons in break to practise. Most of the class was getting 10 out of 10 by the second lesson each week. But some still weren’t, and even ringing home wasn’t working.

Interleaving helped them remember every word. Instead of 10 a week, I chose just four to start, then built up by four words a week, including the first four and every word they’d learned since. Knowing which words are most often misspelt, this worked wonders – they never misspelled interesting, technique or simile again!


[10.2/high ability/good behaviour]

Problem-solving grammar helps students correct their own mistakes.

Just before I taught them problem-solving grammar, just weeks before their English Language controlled assessment with a third of the marks for variety and accuracy of grammar, punctuation and spelling, most of them wrote sentences like this:

One cold winter day, we lined up for the 100m sprint and i lined my self out determined to win, and as soon as the whistle blew to begin i set off….. leaving every1 behind me, at first i believed it to be a fluke as i really needed the toilet that day and i imagined there was a toilet at the finish line but again and again it happened i came first.

After just a few lessons on spotting and correcting run-on sentences and comma splices, they went into the assessment with clear, punchy and accurate punctuation, which prevented this top set from falling down to D grades unnecessarily!



[10.4/mixed ability/disruptive behaviour]

A trial by jury brings the best out of a badly behaved Year 10 set. 

I set up a murder trial courtroom, and hoped the class would genuinely want to find out what would happen. Students opted into roles as 2 judges, 12 jurors, 3 defence and 3 prosecution lawyers, 3 defence and 3 prosecution witnesses, 2 victim’s relatives, 2 defendents and clerks – a lot of scope for individuality in a class of 30.

This Year 10 class’ behaviour was so disruptive that I was really worried it would descend into anarchy. But to my disbelief, they raised their game and listened carefully to each others’ speeches and interrogations. The best bit was when the verdict came back as ‘guilty’, then one defendant got a sentence of 12 months imprisonment and one got 127 years (due to judge favouritism) to roars of laughter from the class!


[10.2/high ability/distracted behaviour]

Online tracking turns disruption into motivation

What’s the most powerful student motivator? I used to think it was phonecalls or postcards home to parents, but whilst they help behaviour, it doesn’t sufficiently motivate effort and hard work. It’s too extrinsic – you need an intrinsic motivator to get them to really want to listen, learn and achieve. In my experience, what motivates them most is peer pressure – making their results visible to their classmates.

10.2 were, at best, distracted. They were just so talkative and interested in each other that it was nearly impossible to get them to focus. I felt bad sanctioning them as they were bright, energetic and positive young people – but they just couldn’t concentrate.

What changed it was an online spreadsheet with colour-coded grades shared on googledocs after each lesson. They could instantly see how well they’d done, and crucially, how well they’d done compared to their peers. No one liked getting a D when everyone else was on a B, just because they hadn’t put in the effort they were capable of.

Of course, this depended on me grading every book after every lesson, and giving feedback twice a week after double lessons. It also required strong planning of the paragraphs or essays I would get them to write to keep their practice focused. But the effort it resulted in was extraordinary. One unmotivated girl had persistently got C’s and in the last lesson before the assessment, I saw her at 5pm after school. ‘Was it good sir?’ she asked eagerly. ‘Check your phone!’ I replied. She saw she’d got an A and was jubilant – everyone else would see. Instant feedback, hard work, peer pressure and online visibility had worked a treat.

 Any questions, email joe.s.kirby@gmail.com 

11. How can questioning unlock learning?


Use questions to check and deepen understanding.

According to Robert Marzano’s book, Classroom Instruction that Works, 80 percent of what is considered instruction involves asking questions. The TES suggests that teachers ask thousands of questions each year.

Used well, questions can achieve two crucial purposes in teaching: they can check for understanding, and they can deepen understanding. The key is knowing the options for how to get students to answer and ask questions.

Here are the top ten techniques that work best to unlock learning:

Check Understanding:

1. Lesson Question

2. Pose-Probe-Bounce

3. Total Response 

4. Progress Survey

5. Exit Ticket

Deepen Understanding:

6. Question Time

7. Write-Pair-Square

8. Action Targets

9. Generate Debate

10. Independent Enquiry


1. Lesson Question: Design your learning objective as a big question to be answered by the lesson.


There are two simple reasons why this works: curiosity and challenge. It creates more curiosity at the start of the lesson than a prescription of what every student will be able to do. It also allows and challenges students to create their own individual answer at the end of the lesson.


There are plenty of options for types of question. You can focus it on a concept or a skill. In English, you could focus it on a character, theme, poem or technique. The crucial element is the sequence of lesson questions you ask across a unit of work to build up to an assessment.


2. Pose-Probe-Bounce. Pose-(pause-pounce)-probe-bounce whole-class questions.


“Hands down”. You *cold-call* students’ names you choose, rather than getting the same few students putting their hands up every time. The effect is electric. Suddenly, everyone has to concentrate. There’s no opt-out. How come? Another analogy is that it’s like playing basketball not table-tennis: everyone’s in the game, not just watching two people playing. Research shows that increasing the wait time, even by a few seconds, dramatically improves the quality of thinking and the depth of responses.


You pose a question. You wait for a few seconds to allow everyone to think. (or a whole minute to allow them to write down a few words, sentence or letter  (A, B, C OR D) if it’s a multiple choice question). Only then do you take whole-class feedback. With hands down, you choose someone in the class to answer. Based on their answer, you probe their response for an example or justification: ‘How come? ‘What’s an example?’ ‘Why?’ Then, instead of replying to the answer, you bounce it to someone else: ‘Jordan, do you agree or disagree with that answer and why?’ Ask if anyone else wants to contribute. Then pose, pause, probe and bounce another question. The dynamic pace sparks energy into the classroom. Bouncing also works by ‘mirroring’ questions you get asked by pupils back to the class: ‘Sir/Miss, what does X mean?’ ‘Good question, who can tell me what X means? Hands up?’


3. Total response: Every pupil answers a hinge question to check for understanding of core concepts


‘Got it? Great, let’s move on.’ Often you need every pupil to understand a concept, otherwise later learning will prove impossible. Asking whether everyone’s understood doesn’t give you any evidence on who hasn’t understood. Getting just a few responses won’t help you visualise whether everyone’s learned what you’ve tried to teach. You need total response mechanisms that give you a crystal-clear picture of who gets it and who doesn’t. A useful analogy is that of a hinge: choose the concepts on which later learning hinges.


One option is to put up a multiple choice question with four options, and use ABCD cards to see instantly how many haven’t understood, and exactly who needs your help. Another option is to use mini-whiteboards, as maths teachers, who often need to check sequential consolidation of core concepts, often do. Hands-up voting is less useful, because weaker students can follow the crowd.


4. Exit Ticket: Use an end-of-lesson plenary question to evaluate what they’ve learned.


How do you know they’ve learned what you’ve tried to teach that lesson? Check how many people still have misconceptions you need to address next lesson by asking a question at the end of the lesson whose answers will reveal that.


For how to design exit tickets, see this post.


5. Progress Survey: Run a self-evaluation questionnaire to find out how well they understand how to improve.


How clear are pupils on what they need to do to improve in your subject? This is one of the trickiest questions in teaching, and one I’m still struggling with. A sequence of questions that asks students how confident they feel on how to improve in the main areas – reading, writing and speaking in English, algebra, geometry and statistics in Maths – further broken down by concept or skill – is useful in knowing who feels they are struggling in each area of the subject.


Use an online survey tool like surveymonkey with 10 free questions or google forms. Or print out a survey of rating questions with the numbers 1-10 below each question, and get students to circle their numerical self-rating on the scale before and half-way through the unit of work.


6. Question Time: Provide opportunities for them to ask questions of you as the expert.


It’s no good asking ‘any questions?’ at the end of the lesson, when the implicit message is ‘no questions, right?’ It’s hard for students to think up questions when put on the spot like that. Instead, give them notice in advance of when you will regularly open up your expertise to them to access.


Ask: ‘any questions’ at check-in points and give them advance warning and thinking time.

Regular check-points work well, such as for homework: ‘I’ll ask whether you have any questions on the homework in a few minutes, so have a think about what you want to ask now.’ Get them to script their questions so that they can prepare what they need to ask, or so that they can even give the questions to you after the lesson if they need. The logical conclusion of this for a tricky topic is ‘Question Time’ with scripted questions asked of the teacher by nominated interviewers from groups.


7. Write-Pair-Square-Share: ‘Snowball’ group discussions of key questions


Some questions require extended thinking time and benefit from pair and group discussion before whole-class feedback. These questions are primarily complex, multi-layered questions of opinion or interpretation, or those where you want every pupil to think deeply about the idea or issue, rather than only listening to a whole-class discussion with one voice at a time. The analogy of a snowball works well here: it starts small, but the longer it rolls, the larger it becomes, just like in class, moving thinking from individual to pairs to fours and finally to a whole class of thirty.


Pose a tough question that requires extended thinking time, such as ‘Why did the author write this book?’ and get students to write their thoughts on it for a minute or more. Then ask them to condense their thoughts into a minute or two discussion with the person sitting next to them. Then pairs become squares, and they have four minutes, roughly one per person, to share and discuss ideas. They can nominate a spokesperson to summarise and share the group’s ideas to the whole class, or you can name one of the square as spokesperson – either in advance or after the discussion.

8. Action Targets: When marking, or doing peer & self-assessment, set actionable questions.

Why? The main thing that makes marking effective is that it’s actionable. There’s no point in slaving away writing laboriously personalised comments if students don’t use them or can’t act on them. To check whether they’ve understood and can apply the target you set, phrase your comment as a question they are required to answer as soon as they get their books back. Marking then becomes a dialogue where you continually help them understand how to improve.

When asked to do peer- or self-assessment, ‘Write more’ ‘Add more detail’ ‘Improve handwriting’: such are the useless comments students often add to their work. To prevent this, share options of questions that students could ask of each other’s and their own work to improve it.


For marking, a useful rule of thumb is *five times or more*: students should spend five times as much time on acting on feedback as it takes you to set it. So if you spend one minute marking a students’ book, you need to spend that one minute designing a five minute task for them to act on. An open question, such as ‘How…?’ or ‘Why…?’ gives them five minutes silent writing time to answer at the start of the next lesson.

For peer-assessment, display six or so different questions on the board that students could choose to use when evaluating their work; give them another option to create their own question, and share and praise the students who take the time to do this. Get students to answer the questions they’ve set, too.



9. Generate Debate: Stick post-it notes on a visual spectrum to showcase class opinion.


Most subject questions you as the teacher already know the answers to. But sometimes, asking authentic questions that you’re genuinely interested in hearing their answers to, can generate debate. The often-luminous colours of post-it-notes can form a clear visual snapshot of class opinion on an issue, and allow for a visible cue to the ‘one-voice-in-the-room’ constraint of debate.


Get students to write their reasons for why they place themselves in a position on for example, an agree-disagree spectrum on the board. Get them to justify and persuade others of their opinion.

10. Independent Enquiry: Get them to create their own questions.


Students who create their own questions begin to understand how to unlock their own interpretations and meaning. This is especially useful for complex texts in English like poetry, plays and novels. It also allows students to independently choose their own ways into a text, and explore possible answers for homework. Used effectively, this can change the way students think about learning.


Get students to generate options for questions they could ask. Get them to categorise the types of question they are asking in different ways: for instance, character, author and context questions. Teach them the difference between open and closed questions, and their different purposes. Get them to choose one question to answer in extended writing for homework, and find evidence to back up their reasons. The other way of doing this in Maths is to put up a number: ‘The answer is 16. What is the question?’ or to design exam questions for each other.

The devil, as ever, is in the detail. What do you think makes effective questioning for unlocking understanding in the classroom?

10. What do I do with their exercise books?

Use them as a record of their achievement

Your school may have a strict policy about exercise books, or it may have no policy at all.  Either way, here’s one approach you can take towards them, and its associated benefits.

Philosophically, treat the book not as a jotter, or a space for working, but as a record of their progress and achievement over time.  The work they do isn’t for their own benefit, or to improve their learning, it’s a presentation for an audience.  Of course, it *will* have the effect of improving their learning, but we just don’t put the emphasis there.  These books need to be presentable, in part so you can read them, but also for Ofsted, and for parents to look over.

Create an audience – the bigger the audience, the more care they’ll take.  Make it clear that you’ll be reading these books regularly, as will the head of department, other teachers, the head teacher, Ofsted, their parents, school governors, etc.  It may or may not be true… but give them the feeling they’re writing and working hard for some kind of recognition, and then make sure that you, at least, are checking their work every few lessons.

What they write in the books and what you do with them once you take them in varies now from subject to subject, but provided you regularly show them you’re looking at their books, and get them to write as though they’re doing it for an audience, you’re likely to reap the following benefits:

  • Increased effort during lessons, and an ability to track those who are being lazy
  • Improved writing and presentation skills
  • Less graffiti in books, potentially eradicating it completely over time
  • Improved learner understanding

For maths teachers I’ll add the following brief suggestion for what they can write in their books in 80-90% of lessons:

  • Today’s date in full (e.g. Sunday 8th July)
  • A title or learning objective (not because that will help them learn anything, but because it helps to structure the book when you or others look through it)
  • A new mathematical fact or formula you’ve given them (if applicable)
  • 2-3 model examples copied from the board, which they can refer to when they’re not sure how to answer the problems you set.  These should demonstrate *exactly* how you would like them to set out their working
  • The questions you ask them to attempt, with full complete working – they should write the problem as well, if it’s short enough.  If it’s long, don’t waste their time with copying it.

One caveat:

Some kids can get so fussy about their books being ‘perfect’ that they stop doing any work at all for fear of making mistakes.  You need to make it clear to them that the books almost *have * to have mistakes in them, to demonstrate their progress, and that a ‘perfect’ book would be expected to have mistakes, with their corrections nearby, showing how they learnt and progressed.

9. How can I get my students to want to achieve?

Set a big goal for the class

Reluctant, disrespectful, recalcitrant, complacent, demotivated, disaffected or disillusioned: any or all of these adjectives may apply to the students you teach from September.

So how can you even begin to turn this round, and get your pupils motivated to learn and succeed?

It sounds impossible. I remember one moment, before I’d met my Year 10 class, where an English teacher sat me down to circle the troublemakers on my register. Out of 30, she went down the list, circling over 15 of them in red. Gulp. The first term was a nightmare of disruption. Each lesson felt like confronting a pack of howling wolves baying for blood.

What won them round was trust. Turning up full of energy and positivity each lesson, praising effort, getting rapport with the ringleaders and getting them each to experience success: all of these things earned their trust and turned it round.

But if I had to recommend one thing that got them to want to achieve, it would be this. Set a big goal for the class. Display it at the start of every lesson as they walk in to remind of what they’re working towards. For example, here’s the one I used with that Year 10 class:


The benefits are brilliant. It guides everything else you plan: will it help them achieve their goal? It motivates them that you believe that they should all aim high. And it brings real urgency to all your lessons, as no one wants to let the class down.

This next slide I designed to tap into their chronic cult of instant gratification with an instant snapshot of the big picture, and combat it with the reason why education matters to them in the long-term: average annual salaries! After this, they were all asking me, “what’s an MBA? How do I get one, sir?” “You start by putting the effort in, here and now…”


How can you design class big goals?

Big goals need to be ambitious but achievable, and most of all, meaningful to your students. That’s why I tapped into the 2012 Olympics with the ‘Best of Britain’ idea. You can follow these four steps to creating your own – diagnose, understand, pinpoint, then design:


Here are a few more concrete examples:





There’s more on how to set big goals here and in this book I recommended.

8. How can I get homework handed in consistently?


“I done it!”

Is homework helpful? The debate is polarised: Ofsted say it is, whereas the cover of Alfie Kohn’s book speaks for itself – homework doesn’t work:


After lots of experiments, most of which backfired spectacularly, including naively making it voluntary and getting precisely zero pieces of work in, I’ve discovered that the golden rule of getting homework handed in consistently is this: make it an automatic routine.

If it’s automatic, it’s easy. The routine helps them: it’s easy to remember and easy to do. Routine also helps you: it’s easy to check, and easy to track who’s not done it.

If it changes sporadically, it makes your life – and your students’ – hell.

So why make your life and theirs harder than it needs to be?

For instance, if you see a class twice a week in English, Monday is learning spellings, Thursday is writing two paragraphs on the question of the week:



Simply give them 10 words to learn that are tricky to spell and test them next lesson.

Then, get them to write 2 paragraphs on a question you’ve been considering that week, and next week get them to read each other’s answers.

Just make sure that each week, you set the same type of homework on a particular day, due to be handed in on a regular day of the week, until they’ve got it on autopilot.

7. What theory of learning will tell me how to teach?


 “There’s nothing as practical as a good theory”

‘Cryptic, remote, irrelevant and unusable’: it seemed to us, one term in to Teach First, just as it seemed to the much more experienced Tom Bennett, that practical theories in education were hard to come by. Theories of ZPD (zone of proximal development) and multiple intelligences (from the interpersonal to the intrapersonal) left us with more confusion than clarity.

Over our first year, only one theory has had practical applications that improved our teaching.

Cognitive science explains how the mind learns, and on that basis recommends how to teach. Its basic tenet is this: minimise working memory overload to maximise long term memory retention.


So here are our six killer apps of cognitivism in education, not just for maths, or only for English, but across all subjects.


The six killer apps of cognitive science

1. Chunks 

Insight: Our working memories are very small (try memorising ‘4687538279201’), but our long-term memories are very powerful, chunking stored information (now try ‘the boy got home’): abstract concepts (like metaphors and ordinal scales) are hard to understand.

Application: Don’t overload your lessons and learning objectives with abstract concepts and complex problems: choose the key question to provoke curiosity, chunk it into very simple tasks and build it up in little bits.

Examples: Instead of ‘by the end of this lesson, students will be able to understand how different dramatic techniques convey action, character, atmosphere and tension’, use: ‘How does the play create tension?’

2. Knowledge

Insight: It’s impossible toimprove the skills of reading, critical thinkingand problem-solving without content-specific facts and background knowledge.

Application: Consolidate students’ knowledge foundation securelybeforeyou require higher-order thinking.

Examples: Secure the times tables in Maths, and grammar in English, for instance.

3. Problems 

Insight: What makes things interesting to learn and easy to understand is clarifying the problems to be solved.

Application: Focus first on the question or problem type, and the why, before diving into how to solve it. Let students compare and revisit problem types that you’ve covered before, to deepen their understanding.

Examples: Compare lots of GCSE question types in English and Maths.

4. Examples

Insight: Asking students to figure it out for themselves is less effective than showing them how to do what you’re asking, with lots of examples.

Application: Create lots of worked examples so students know how to improve.

Examples: Show lots of model paragraphs in English, and show them lots of step-by-step working in Maths, for instance, how to factorise a quadratic expression.


 5. Practice

Insight: It’s impossible to become proficient at any mental task without extended practice.

Application: Drill students in the crucial processes they need to succeed.

Examples: In English, identifying techniques and punctuating sentences, in Maths, manipulating algebra equations and converting between fractions, decimals and percentages.

Image 6. Mnemonics

Insight: Long-term memory storage and retention works best when triggered by chunking.

Application: Createpowerfulmnemonic devices with acronyms for complex, important processes that students need to be able to do.

Examples: Maths teachers have long used SOHCAHTOA for trigonometry; English teachers have used PEEL for textual analysis. Create your own: try ‘SEAL the DEAL’ for comparative writing (Similarity Examples Analyse Link; Difference etc).

Dan Willingham’s Why Don’t Students Like School? is a good place to start exploring these ideas.