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.

6. What’s the best book to read on teaching?

In my first year of Teach First, top contenders have been Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion and Steven Farr’s Teaching as Leadership. Both are worth reading, and both reward continual re-reading. They take bronze and silver medals.

 Image            Image

But gold goes to Dan Willingham’s Why Don’t Students Like School?, for three reasons.

First, it’s packed full of practical ideas. If you want to know how to improve the way you use stories, knowledge or problems, examples, practice or mnemonics, there’s no better author.

Second, it distills three decades of scientific research into how the brain works. Thirty years of evidence is crystalised at your fingertips: all of it tailored to the classroom.

Third, it opens your eyes as to why certain things aren’t working. For instance, why don’t they remember anything I tell them? Because I’m starving them of stories and mnemonics that make content memorable. Why can’t they understand the concepts? Because I’ve starved them of concrete examples. Why can’t they interpret critically? Because they don’t have a sufficiently secure foundation of background knowledge of the text. Willingham’s brilliant diagnosis sheds light onto why students struggle at school.

Above any other book I’ve read on teaching, it holds the keys that unlock learning.


5. What’s the secret to assessing pupil progress every lesson?


Use exit tickets to get a snapshot of what every student took away from your lesson

This is the single most powerful thing I’ve done all year, from lesson one, maintaining it consistently, and it’s impressed external observers and internal mentors alike.

The exit ticket provides a snapshot of whole class understanding for each and every lesson, in under two minutes.  For effort to impact ratio, they’re a no brainer.  I can’t even imagine planning the next lesson without them.

How do I set it up?

5-10 minutes before the end of a lesson, throw up a single question on the board (sometimes you might want two, but be careful about going over this – really ups the workload!)  They write their name and answer on the ticket.  As they leave, they hand it to you.  This does two things:

  1. They have to leave via you, establishing you as an authority in the room
  2. Gives you a powerful tool for planning/tweaking the next lesson

What do I do with my fistful of tickets?

It’s up to you, experiment.  Here a few possibilities:

Light touch – Flick through quickly and organise them into piles:

  1. 100% correct
  2. Didn’t have a clue
  3. Different piles for the same mistake

It’s an immediate picture of their understanding.  I might modify and redeliver an entire lesson if the results are bad.  Now throw them away.

More time, more impact – After arranging the tickets into piles, mark them; tick everything that’s correct (for motivation), circle errors and comment if you can, maybe even providing a model solution.  Next lesson hand them out and discuss the misconceptions on the board.  This has the (significant) advantage of making sure they know you value their effort, and you’re doing something with all those tickets.  Now they can throw them away themselves.

Maximal effort, good for Ofsted – At the end of the lesson, they write the question in their books. Sort the tickets into piles again, mark them and hand them out in the next lesson, but this time they glue the tickets into their books, maintaining a record of their end of lesson understanding.

They can be used to assess student’s feelings as well – how confident they understood the lesson, how well they feel they met a behaviour objective etc.  This is a good way of showing you value student voice.

5. How can I mark books without burning out?

Appetising stuff?


Use icons to set targets, save time and help them improve.


Imagine you have five classes of thirty students, who you teach three times a week. Marking their books is the bane of every English teacher’s life. To mark every student’s book each week, it means correcting about 300 pages a week.

One simple solution helps: use icons to set targets. Set aside five hours a week to marking books: that hour each weekday after school is the most powerful time you spend as a teacher. No other teacher marks books this often. If you do, you’ll instantly win every student’s respect. ‘How do you do it?!’ they’ll ask admiringly…

Most marking is high effort, low impact. Teachers spend hours poring over books in the first few weeks, laboriously writing out personal comments. They quickly burn out, and struggle to keep up with even marking every two weeks.

The problem with this for students is that it doesn’t help them improve. Comments take too long to arrive, they’ve forgotten what they wrote two weeks ago, and they can’t act on the advice.

Instead, what would maximum impact, minimum effort marking look like?

Don’t write out comments. You end up writing such similar comments across the class, and they won’t read them anyway.

Instead, get them to write them out. Choose three to five targets or questions before you start marking, then scan their answer, choose the best fit between the student’s work and the group target, and draw an icon. One minute per book maximum. At the start of the next lesson, you write the targets on the board, students write their targets in their books. They get instant feedback and can take action on their target straight away.

Simple. It saves you time and helps them improve.

4. Entering my classroom, what do students do now?

Set up a crystal clear routine and step-by-step instructions on the board that tell them unmistakably: ‘This is what you do now.’

The eager arrive before lunch has finished; the cool saunter in with ridiculous swagger; the obnoxious drag their feet all the way to your door; the complacent roll in late.

Your classroom will fill in dribs and drabs; you need to get them settled and ready to learn as quickly as possible.

At its heart, the Do Now is simply what they should do, now they are in the room.  Think of the Do Now as a settler, and then have another starter designed as a hook to your lesson.

I’ve experimented with many variants over the year.  Here are a few of them:

Simple Questions

  • Simple maths questions based on the last lesson’s learning
  • Simple maths questions that will lead into today’s learning

Bigger Questions

  • ‘If this is the answer, what is the question’ – can be as simple as a big 42 on the board
  • ‘Where have you seen maths in real life’ – e.g. percentages
  • Draw a triangle on the board – what questions might I ask about this triangle?
  • What would the world be like without numbers?

They’ll all have different effects, and you’ll have to experiment with your own groups to see how they respond.  I can’t tell you what will settle your classes best, but I can tell you this: having had to repeatedly circulate a room frantically, persuading all but the hardest working to open their books and start answering questions, the first time I saw a whole group (of Year 10s) walk in and just get on with it was when I wrote three, crystal clear instructions on the board, started an 8 minute countdown timer, welcomed most at the door, then calmly kicked back in my chair, taking care of some admin:

  1. Rule off after yesterday’s work
  2. Write today’s date
  3. Attempt these questions in your book