Wellbeing: the subtle art of saying “no”; saying “not yet”, and asking the right questions…

Reading time: 5 minutes

As the dark winter months close in around us, I am seeing a lot more in my Twitter feed about wellbeing and people who are seriously struggling with very challenging work environments.

I have been a teacher for 10 years. My first 5 years were spent working in the wrong way; I made myself incredibly ill every year, and one year I actually fainted back stage after a theatre trip through sheer exhaustion. Working every hour of the day did not make me a better teacher; it made me intolerant, frantic, and did not help my marriage. It also wasn’t really the fault of the schools I worked for – I fell for the ridiculous but attractive idea that I was fed as a trainee; to teach is to be a martyr and change lives by sacrificing your own. WARNING: This is dangerous nonsense.

My working pattern is much better now. I am an Assistant Principal for Teaching and Learning at a large inner-city secondary school. I am married to a very busy musician and we have a two year old. My typical week looks like this:

– I get to my desk between 7-7:30 every morning, leave between 4-5pm every day. Most days it is closer to 4pm, unless I have leadership duty for a school event.

– I use ‘Microsoft to-do’ to run my to do lists (I’d recommend it!). I then select three key things I want to achieve from my list every day – anything else I get done on top of that is a bonus. If my day gets overtaken by unexpected jobs, I write those down and cross them off my list too – it’s important to remember that, even if you don’t get what YOU wanted done, you have still achieved a lot on those really busy days!

– I aim to be as efficient as possible during the working day. Meetings have clear objectives, I set targets for each period of ‘free’ time, and if my workload feels overwhelming I speak to my line manager and we come up with a creative solution.

– I do almost everything digitally. While I am in meetings, I take my notes and minutes live, update to-do lists and create resources as I go. This cuts down on a lot of admin time; I used pen and paper for most meetings last year and I estimate that moving towards using my tablet for everything this year has saved me around 4 hours per week.

– I work for around two hours on a Sunday evening – this covers my lesson planning for the week (my teaching load is 8 hours per week). I don’t plan individual lessons, I plan a series of learning – that often means I am only creating one ppt for a whole week with one class. It’s probably the same amount of work, but it feels like less!

– I get my marking done live during lessons as much as possible, or in the hour before school in the mornings. Compared to what I used to do before joining senior leadership, marking makes up only a fraction of my workload.

– I work every now and then in the evening during the week, but it’s not regular, and it’s generally just little things which need mopping up before the next day. I THINK about work a lot, and I do a lot of reading and research, but I don’t see this as work because (geek that I am) it’s something I enjoy.

– I generally don’t check my emails out of work time. If there is an emergency, my boss will call me. There hasn’t been an emergency in the whole year I’ve been in my job, nor has there been even the slight suggestion that my senior colleagues want me to check my emails more often.

– I do everything I can to maintain a busy, fulfilling life outside of work. I sing, play American football (I know – unexpected!), write, run, and have an extensive circle of good friends and close family.

I know that many people who do my role in other schools work more hours than me. I also know that I am good at my job and, though I still have a huge amount to learn, I know my colleagues are happy with how much I get done. I know that this is enough.

Some thoughts on work-life balance:

Leaders (sometimes the leader is wrong, but this doesn’t make them wicked)

Wellbeing and workload are everyone’s responsibility, but sometimes we fall into the trap of blaming leadership entirely. Leaders are not omniscient beings and, though it is incumbent upon us to seek to know as much as possible about our schools, we can’t possibly know it all. Leaders might ask teachers to do things which are unreasonable. This doesn’t make those leaders bad, necessarily. It might mean they are tired, overlooking something, uninformed or struggling with their own workload. If a leader asks you to do something which you feel is difficult, you need to speak up…

Ask: “Why would you like me to do this? What’s the big picture?”

When I ask my team to do things, I show them the overall context so that they understand where their ‘bit’ fits in. My team regularly see my Academy Improvement Plan for T&L; they see exactly where their data feeds in to our work, and they know that the things I’m asking them to produce for me have a purpose. Leaders asking for data should say, “We’re going to use this for…” “This will help us to understand…” If you have a clear idea of WHY you’re doing something, it is much easier to stomach. It also helps you to decide what to prioritise and when.

Ask: “What exactly do you want this to look like?”

Sometimes leaders ask us to do things without being entirely clear. This can lead to anxiety and stress, all because of a slight miscommunication. In previous years I have spent hours producing data which was NOT what my boss actually asked me for. Ask what exactly they want, ask for a model if possible, or success criteria (if it works for the kids, why not the staff?!)

Ask: “What would you like me to prioritise?”

Sometimes there will be genuine pressing reasons why something has to be done right now. Structures in schools often mean that leaders don’t know the full range of things people are being asked to do (one colleague could be asked to do three different things by three different people, without any of them realising it!). If this is you, tell people what you have on your plate, and ask them to help you to prioritise. When they fully understand people’s workload demands, leaders have a better chance of looking after their staff!

If it comes to “no”…

Sometimes you will be asked to do unreasonable things. Being given really short notice, or being asked to do something you don’t feel equipped or supported to do properly is incredibly stressful. Ultimately, some schools get away with putting staff under pressure because people allow them to. If teachers don’t turn around and say “no” when it is warranted, these cultures of high accountability and no support are allowed to continue.

Say: “No”

OR: “I have a lot on at the moment and I’m going to struggle to get this done. If you feel that this is really important, I will have to do it instead of doing X, Y or Z.”

OR: “I can’t do this yet. I will have time in a couple of days/ in a week/ when I’ve finished…”

It might not work, but at least you will have done something to voice the issue. If we love our jobs, love our schools, we must do what we can to rescue them from sleepwalking into becoming pressure cookers. Keep the lines of communication open; be honest about your capacity for work. Good leaders want to do what’s best for their staff, but they can only do it if staff talk to them. On the other hand, leaders who don’t want to listen don’t deserve your efforts.


Words of the Week: what we do…

Reading time: 5 mins

We’ve all seen ‘Word of the Week’ used in schools. On the surface, they can seem a little superficial; how can one word per week really make a dent in the vocabulary deficit of our students? I would argue, though, that any change in attitude and practice must have a tangible, visible hook. Word of the Week may not improve literacy on its own, but it creates a simple focal point which raises awareness across the school. Development in pedagogy around vocabulary and literacy is my ultimate aim, but Word of the Week is great marketing for this T&L drive.

I have been inspired by Alex Quigley’s brilliant book: ‘Closing the Vocabulary Gap’. Our Words of the Week for this year come from the lists of common academic vocabulary in his book. Here is a very simple explanation of what we are doing this year:

1. Select Words

Words of the week (39 in total over the academic year) have been chosen and are themed each half term. The words for HT1 all begin with the prefix -con. HT2 all either share the root -equal- or -med-. This means that students begin to predict what words mean; they all know what con- means on the front of a word, so now they are increasingly able to decode new words which use that prefix.

Here are my words for this year:

You can see that they all share common morphological traits. The final half term will allow students to explore some groups of words, rather than words in isolation.

2. Train Staff (not just teachers!)

All staff in the school have a laminated keyring each half term with the words of the week. At the start of the year, they were given training on how to talk about words, their history, etymology and morphology. Staff explore the WOTW on Mondays in Tutor Time. Below is the training summary they all have as a CPD keyring.

3. Teach the WHOLE word

Etymology is the history of a word, its meaning and how it has changed over time. Morphology is how a word is formed, and how it might be linked to other words with similar elements. Using this information as a foundation for new vocabulary is very powerful – it enables students to unlock and access vocabulary, and gives them the skills they need to do this independently in the future.

My WOTW resources also explore the word by looking at the different conjugations of words (e.g. consist, consists, consisted, consisting), examples of the word used in context, synonyms or related words, and links to how words might be used by people in various professions. I have created one of these for every week:

These have all been turned into posters. Our brilliant Admin team have put them into displays all over the school, and they change them every Friday afternoon so that the new word is ready for the week to come.

4. Celebrate great practice – reward and promote vocabulary success

We are raising the profile of vocabulary teaching across the school. Students are rewarded with house points for using the words of the week. Other things we do to thread these words into our everyday practice are:

– Setting homework tasks with a challenge to include the WOTW, accurately, in writing

– Using the word in conversations with students (not just in lessons, but also during breaks, at extra-curricular activities and on the corridor)

– Using the word as often as possible in staff emails (I’m running a challenge at the moment for middle and senior leaders to see who can do it the most!)

Getting Word of the Week right is about establishing vocabulary was something which is more than just a bunch of letters. Words have rich history, power, connotation, and a complex web of linguistic connections which link them all together. One of our support staff said to me today, “I always learn something new from the Word of the Week displays!” It might seem a bit ‘fluffy’, but done well, it can plant words at the forefront of people’s minds, and begin to create a culture of word-awareness.

If you would like any of the resources for WOTW, I will happily send them over: just tweet me @funkypedagogy


Challenge for All: #PracPed18

This is a write up of my talk from Practical Pedagogies in Cologne, November 2018.

‘Unapologetically ambitious, unashamedly academic’

This is the mantra I share with my students at the start of every academic year, and it’s something we return to when we need a boost. I am currently teaching in the same community where I grew up. It’s taken me nearly a decade, but I’ve earned my stripes in a number of other schools and communities across West Yorkshire in order to return to my old stomping ground. I am incredibly grateful for the foundation which my childhood has given me, but as someone who grew up in a single parent family in an area which ticked all the boxes for social deprivation, someone who attended a (technically) failing school and wouldn’t have been expected to do particularly well, I want to give voice to something:

So called ‘disadvantaged’ students don’t want you to make things ‘accessible’, we want you to make aspiration possible. Don’t take it slowly, take it easy on us or limit what you teach so that we can ‘get it’. Instead, be even more demanding, even more ambitious, and help us to catch up with our more privileged counterparts.

A school does not need to be ‘outstanding’ to challenge students and get the best out of them. Though the school I attended had its difficulties, it was the individual teachers, their care, their intelligence and their belief in me which meant that I went on to be successful. Bright, poor kids can do really well if they:

  1. Have teachers they KNOW believe in them
  2. Are confident that their teachers have the knowledge and ability to stretch them

Students will never hold it against you for being demanding, relentless and rigorous, as long as they feel that you believe in them and will support them to achieve.

What is Challenge?

Challenge is a highly abstract, subjective concept. Educators and philosophers have tried to define and explore challenge for generations. My colleague Dan Eastwood has written an excellent explanation of Czikszentmihalyi’s theory of ‘Flow’ on our school T&L blog here.

Essentially, attempts to take ‘challenge’ from abstract to concrete are all based on finding the optimal level of difficulty on a scale from easy to hard. Using a scale like this is incredibly helpful because it gives us a mechanism to help us measure challenge, and to talk about it. Most important, it helps students to talk about it.

A classroom which is challenging for all is one where all students have work which is the most appropriate for them. Sound familiar? Best practice in teaching always boils down to the same thing; whether we call it Challenge, Differentiation or Personalisation, it is always just: knowing our students and acting accordingly.


Why is challenge important?

In a recent HMI visit to our school, an inspector asked our student panel, “On a scale of 1-10, where 1 is completely empty, and 10 is full to bursting, how full is your brain by the end of the school day?”

I think this really goes to the heart of things. By the end of the school day, students should feel full of new knowledge and understanding, and should be tired out by all the work their brains have been doing!

Challenge has obvious benefits:

  • accelerated progress
  • makes lessons feel meaningful
  • leads to greater engagement
  • meeting challenge leads to aspiration

As educators, we know this. What we often aren’t aware of, however, is the role of challenge as a vital part of the mechanical process of learning.

If the brain finds something difficult, or encounters failure, it grants it personal significance. High challenge = better learning.

CapturechaTo read more about the cognitive learning process (how the brain learns things, and why challenge is a key part of this), see my blog here.

So, give them work which is highly challenging, and they are more likely to transfer new information to long term memory. Work which is too easy is generally ineffective in terms of the learning process.

Capture9This high challenge will also be more powerful if students themselves are aware of the research around learning and the brain. Tell students that challenge is good for them, get them to embrace it, and encourage them to ask for it.


Practical Strategies for the Classroom


I believe strongly that there is very little difference between half-decent teaching, and brilliant teaching. Anyone who tells you that there is a single silver bullet or solution, and that you should make big changes to your practice, is a snake-oil salesman and should be avoided. ANY teacher can be highly effective in the classroom by making tiny tweaks to their practice; don’t re-invent the wheel or change your style.

Tweak 1: Vary Cognitive Load Demand

Cognitive load theory is the consideration of how much we are asking students to do at once, and whether or not it is manageable. To be truly challenging, we want to get this exactly right, and there are many things about our planning and delivery that we can do to make subtle alterations to this. See this great blog by Adam Boxer: Simplifying Cognitive Load Theory for more detail.

Tweak 2: Awareness and Articulation


Empower your students to do the work for you; if they can tell you that they need more challenging work, that is learning gold!

I’ve shown this resource in previous posts, but it’s a good one! Give students a blank version of this ‘comfort, stretch, panic’, then get them to write in each space what this looks like for them in your classroom.


This is one student’s first attempt at this activity. In red, she has looked at the skills in her ‘panic’ area. and begun to think metacognitively: How does it feel? Why might that be? What can your teacher do to help you overcome this?

I also use paint sampler scales and chilli scales, things you will have seen before, to help students to identify how challenging things feel…


If students can identify what feels challenging, the next step is for them to think about how you could challenge them even more. This is quite advanced metacognition, but it is possible to give them scaffolds to help them with this initially (see below). If students have independently asked you for more challenging work, or even suggested to you what their next step will be, then engagement in learning will be higher because they have ownership.


Tweak 3: Language – explicit, purposeful planning

CapturepicStudents who use sophisticated language are able to express themselves with greater precision and elegance. In my opinion, this is the most high-impact tweak you can make if you’re in a writing subject. My blog here explores some simple strategies for teaching sophisticated vocabulary and expression.

Tweak 4: Disciplinary Literacy

In his book ‘Don’t Call it Literacy,’ Geoff Barton argues that literacy is not the same in every academic discipline, and therefore we shouldn’t pretend that it is. My school this year is using this principle and teaching children the unique academic writing styles which are required in each aubject area. Students aren’t just learning to write; they are writing like historians, biologists, politicians, novelists and critics. This is hugely important for maintaining high levels of challenge because we can set the bar high – “you have the process right, Jordan, but what adverbs would a chemist use to describe the reaction?”, “accurate response, Alima, but how would a businesswoman have said that in a sales pitch?”

This approach requires collaborative planning in department areas, the sharing of expertise, and the development of resources to support different writing styles. When in place, it can produce some excellent responses:


Tweak 5: High Level Models – pitch to the top

Tom Sherrington (@teacherhead) wrote a great blog on Teaching to the Top, where he talks about setting the bar as high as possible and scaffolding downwards. One way I try to do this is by only ever using models which are aspirational for the students in front of me. More often than not, I use only top level models, sometimes showing things which are A Level standard for GCSE students. This might sound a little extreme to some, but it is a teacher’s job to make this feel accessible, to break it down and show students how good writing is constructed.

CapturemodHere is an example of a top band poetry paragraph. Students have picked it apart, analysed it, identified the key phrases, skills and vocabulary. You can see along the bottom that there are a high number of sophisticated vocabulary choices.

I also use full marks responses as part of whole class feedback sheets. With the example below, students looked at the model, then at their own attempt, then identified things which the model did which they hadn’t done. Their next draft aimed to close some of those gaps in their writing.


Here is an example of a student’s work who has been exposed to full marks models for six months. At the start of the year he was writing at a grade 2. The difference here is remarkable.


Tweak 6: Multi-faceted, personalised success criteria

Using success criteria to frame any substantial task is crucial in my opinion. Students know what you’re looking for, you know what you’re feeding back on; everyone knows where they stand. I like to use success criteria as an initial list of things students need to do to be successful in a task (use the author’s name, comment on context, etc.). Success criteria serve to lay out all the features of a high level piece of work, and thereby make excellence transparent and clear for all students.

The example below shows where a Y7 student has completed a piece of work, been assessed by the teacher (see green and pink highlighter bars), used this to set their own challenging targets for next time, and has some challenging questions at the bottom to push them further.


Tweak 7: Embrace and respect the abstract

All subjects, at their upper levels of challenge, become increasingly abstract. English goes from words to humanity, just as Physics goes from measurement to creation. The abstract is hard to teach; it is intangible, ethereal, and leads to unpredictable thinking from the young people before us. If we want to be truly challenging and aspirational, we must face these challenges head on and find creative ways to help students to access them. In a blog here, I outline a strategy to help students to break down high level statements and questions. I find that it has been a reliable approach for all my classes, from A Level to Y7, and I know of a primary colleague who successfully used a slightly adapted version with Y4.

The other, most effective way of embracing the abstract, is by finding powerful visual representations of concepts. I use the image below to help students to explore ideas about mental instability in poetry. The image represents the concept, and students have made really perceptive notes.



Capturedaz.PNGIn his blog, Tom Sherrington says that students need the opportunity to have open ended tasks where they can really excel. If we are too prescriptive, we run the risk of limiting creative potential and allowing our pre-conceived ideas of student ability to provide a glass ceiling and stifle them. I like to set regular homework tasks which enable students to surprise me. The example above is work which a student did entirely by hand – I asked the class to create mood boards to encapsulate the key ideas surrounding a main character in the play. I’m sure you’ll agree that this is stunning. An overly-prescriptive task might have prevented this student from producing this beauty.

Another example of this can be seen on my post here on homework.


All of the strategies above are explained fully in this post.

Tweak 10: big yourself up

You’ve done it. You’re challenging students left, right and centre, they leave lessons with aching brains, and are desperate to push their own limits. Now it’s important to monopolise on that brilliance and re-establish the power of challenge. At the end of a topic, re-visit old work and show students really explicitly what progress has been made.


This example shows what the student did as a baseline, and then what they did later in the topic. I got them to look at both pieces of work, identify how much better the most recent one was, and reiterated all the challenging things we did to get there.

There is value in reminding students that you are a good teacher. I want my students to say: “Mrs Webb is a brilliant English teacher; I learn a lot and make excellent progress in her lessons.” As well as feeding my ego, this breeds trust between us and our students, improves engagement and strengthens your practice moving forward.

Capture37Class teachers can create highly challenging environments where students thrive, but this is even more effective when leaders create an aspirational culture in the wider school.

Things leaders can do:

  1. Seek to understand curriculum demands. Many subjects have highly demanding new curricula. Leaders should find out what these demands are so that they can appreciate the work teachers are doing.
  2. ASK staff what they feel they need to become better subject specialists. Teachers can only stretch students if their own subject knowledge is good enough. If teachers are asking for subject knowledge enhancement, give it to them. It is far more important than most of the other CPD expenses you might be considering.
  3. As part of quality assurance, look for evidence of struggle. Where have students found something difficult and how have they overcome it? If you can’t find the evidence of this, ASK! Speak to teachers and students: What did students find was the most challenging part of this task? What could you do to raise the level of challenge? Discussions like this should be developmental and non-judgemental; we should not be in the business of catching teachers out, but finding more ways to support and develop them.
  4. On curriculum, ask yourself: can you be certain this wasn’t covered in Primary School? Build excellent relationships with feeder schools. Look at innovative strategies and make time to connect.
  5. Ask yourself: Does culture and staff attitude reflect a ‘not yet’, hopeful atmosphere? Find ways to sensitively challenge staff who say, “these kids can’t/won’t/don’t…”

The first ever school I worked in was a successful independent school. I learned a lot from my time there, but the abiding lesson I learned about school culture is that if the students value academic success, your work is mostly done; they will value and seek out challenge. At that school, the person who got the highest score on the maths test was as highly respected as the captain of the rugby team. As long as someone was successful at something, whatever that was, they felt that they had some status and identity. If we can build schools where students see academic success, progress and the strive for excellence as something which is, dare I say, ‘cool’, we will have learning environments where students can really thrive.




Seven ways I’ve kicked my homework habit…

In ten years of teaching, I am embarrassed to say, I have never managed to do homework right. It has always felt like an extra thing; to plan, to remember, to take in, to mark and to cause friction between myself and my students. Growing up, I also remember some homework tasks at school which made me anxious. My own circumstances meant that I didn’t have the resources, time or capacity to do some of the things my peers could. Homework has been something I have shunned and put to one side, doing enough to meet school policy, but without any real passion or engagement. That has changed this year.

I have been leading teaching and learning since January 2018, and it is about time I put my money where my mouth is and upped my homework game – lead by example and all that…

I formulated a plan of attack and, so far, it’s going well. Here are the seven things I’ve done to change the bad habits of an entire career…

1. Start Small

I started with spelling tests. I gave a spelling test for key Tier 2 vocabulary in my first lessons with each class, then set those words as practice for homework due two days later. This was important because it meant no marking for me (something which, at the start of the year, would have given me real workload anxiety!!!), it was low steaks for the kids (nothing specific to hand in), and it was a quick win for setting standards high straight away.

2. Build Routines

I am doing a vocabulary learning homework followed by two or three spelling/word usage quizzes every week. I also set one ‘big’ homework, or two smaller ones every fortnight. For example, in the last two weeks, Y8 had:

1/10: 10 spellings with word usage quizzes that week

4/10: Reading 2 chapters with summary writing

8/10: 10 spellings with word usage quizzes that week

11/10: Research task

None of these tasks required marking. The reading and summary tasks had some peer assessment to ensure students had covered all key points, but that was a simple 5 minute task.

Students know that they will get a vocabulary homework on a Monday, and a ‘bigger’ task on a Thursday.

3. Keep it low stakes

Students should feel that homework is an opportunity, not something to cause anxiety. If I set something to learn (such as spellings, facts, dates etc.) I talk about wanting to see marginal gains; it’s not about perfection, it’s about consistent improvement. I want every child in my class to know that, if they work hard, they can improve, no matter their starting point. For my Monday lessons (when I always set a vocabulary homework), I have a note on the first slide which says: ‘Week X spelling test – don’t panic if you don’t know these – you will have time to learn them as homework!’ Homework is an opportunity to make progress, not something to cause stress.

4. Embrace Personal Creativity

When I set more involved homework tasks, I give students options about how they might present their work. An example is that I set a research task and asked students to create a timeline with key events from the Civil Rights movement to support their study of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’. I said that, as long as it was clearly a timeline, I didn’t mind how it was done; bonus points would be given for creativity and innovation. I got an incredible range of submissions from highly beautiful artistic pieces, to thorough, detailed, hand written notes. They were vastly different, but equally great, and all students had found a way to succeed.


This student created a massive overview complete with pull out notes on the literature, great speeches and song lyrics inspired by the movement. She even included a little fold out bus with details from the life of Rosa Parks!

This student produced a homework so detailed that it spanned 9 pages of A4 and had to be filmed to be appreciated…

5. Find a system to keep track

A great idea from our Lead Practitioner in Science; I have glued a very simple homework tracker to the back of every student exercise book. When I set a task, students write the date and the type of homework on the sheet and then when I come to collect them in on the due date, I sign it. This means that when I come to do interventions, data, parents’ evenings and reports, I have a full picture of what’s happening. This system is also great because it is really obvious to students that homework is a visible, important element of their learning, and they know I am tracking it.

6. Keep it varied

While some predictability and routine is really effective, it is important to keep homework tasks varied. On top of my regular vocabulary homework tasks, this half term I have set:

– independent research

– metacognitive writing (write a letter to your future self… see image below)

– unseen poetry analysis sheet

– revision grid (see resource on blog here)

– hexagon analysis (see resource on blog here)

– completion (of work started in the lesson)

– reading (specific chapters of the novel, or an article or extract I’ve given them)

– questions (students come up with five probing questions about the content of the lesson we have just had)

– dual coding (students create images to go alongside key content learned in the lesson)

– shoe box scene (students create an artistic representation of a scene from the novel, inside a shoe box!) – I’m excited to see the results of this after half term!

7. Be unapologetically, unashamedly aspirational and academic (and enable students to excel)

Some of my issues with setting homework have been caused because I’ve been nervous about asking students with challenging home lives to do things outside of school. This is my own issue, but I know other teachers who have expressed the same concerns. If we set homework for our students, we risk further isolating the students from underprivileged backgrounds because we worry that they are less likely to complete the work than their more affluent peers. This could deepen the divide in our classroom between those who have and those who do not.

I have recently come to believe that this is the wrong way of seeing it. The students at my current school, many of whom come from incredibly challenging refugee and asylum seeker backgrounds, are hungry for challenge. After some initial complaints from Y11, they are now genuinely annoyed with me if I forget to give them their homework tasks; they ask me for more difficult ways to approach activities, and they see their independent work as a chance to make faster progress. Many of our students have had a delayed start to education in this country, and they see homework as a gift; something to help them close that gap (I know that sounds cheesy, but it’s true!).

Rather than worrying about protecting students from homework (what I’ve been doing in a misguided way for years!), we should be even more rigorous and aspirational in what we set and expect of them. This is particularly important for disadvantaged students – they don’t want to be patronised or given things which are ‘accessible’, they need us to set high standards and then enable them to meet them. When I set homework, I make it clear to students that I will help them with anything they need to complete it. Students can ask me privately if they can borrow art supplies, book some time on a computer, they are free to email me their work so I can print it for them. One of my challenges as a teenager was finding a space to work in at home. I make it widely known that I’m happy for students to book time with me to work on their homework in a classroom while I mark my books, or they can use the school library. If we remove all barriers to students doing their work, they will surprise us with what they can do!

This is very much a work in progress. I have no doubt that, as with most things over the course of the academic year, my enthusiasm and energy will wane, and I will need to give myself a kick around February.

I’d love to hear how you do homework in your classroom – tweet me @funkypedagogy

Teaching Ideas

Memory and Recall: Practical Strategies for a Linear World

Memory 1

This post is based on my talk at ‘Teaching and Learning Leeds: Encouraging the Leader Within’ on 23rd June 2018.

Memory 2

Teaching is fundamentally about making the best possible use of the human brain and helping students to use theirs to their fullest potential. Why then, is there so little focus on how the brain works in initial teacher training and in school based CPD? There are certainly some pockets of excellent practice out there,  Memory 3but the vast majority of teachers on the ground do not have a solid grounding in how we actually learn, and are therefore living in a fog of uncertainty and vague ‘I reckon this will probably work’ territory…

We must lift the fog and empower ourselves to be the most effective teachers we possibly can!

In this post, I will outline the basics of what a classroom teacher or school leader needs to know about how we form memories, and then suggest a range of practical strategies which you could easily start doing in your school or classroom tomorrow morning…

What is the point?

Memory 4

This is the reason we do what we do (arguments about guiding students to become ‘good people’ aside…!) We aim to increase student knowledge and skill in order to equip them for a future we cannot fully see. This means transferring content from their short term to their long term memories.

How the brain learns (the easy version)…

Memory 5


Information is sent to the brain – e.g. during your lesson – through various stimuli (they hear you speak, look at text and images, ‘do’ activities).

Memory 6



The brain looks at the new information, breaks it up into categories and decides where to put each part.Memory 7



The brain then scans that new information to see if there are any recognisable similarities between the new content and existing knowledge. The brain then makes links between those connected pieces of information – this is how neural networks are created.

Every time a new piece of information comes in, it amends and enhances the existing knowledge. Think of it like this; the brain is NOT an empty vessel which gets gradually more full (like a bath of water), it is more like a lagoon with multiple waterfalls bringing in new information. With every new influx of knowledge (water), the brain (lagoon) changes; old knowledge is updated and enhanced and neural networks are strengthened. This is called brain plasticity.

Memory 8

Memory 10

This changes the way we define learning. It is not helpful to view learning as straightforward knowledge acquisition.

Memory 11

Learning is actually far more complex…

Memory 12

Consequences for ‘The Gap’…

Memory 13Memory 14Memory 15

The very nature of the brain means that the more you already know, the easier you learn. Therefore our most privileged students, who already have the advantages of greater academic and cultural capital, find it even easier to learn and make progress. Students without this head start are sadly left even further behind.

Memory 16

The brain is far more emotional than it is rational. This means that a student who is experiencing less stability (such as anxiety, uncertainty, distress or anger) will struggle to encode information for learning. Happy, stable students learn far better, so it is incumbent upon us to create a safe, positive environment in our classrooms, and to champion good mental health practices in our schools.

Short and Long Term Memory

Memory 17

Unfortunately, we can’t just say to our brains: “We need to learn this now, please! It’s going to be on the exam!”

Our brains will only store something in our long term memory if it carries personal significance to us. For example:

Scenario 1: This morning I drove to work behind a blue car. Five minutes after arriving at work, I forgot the colour of the car because my brain decided it wasn’t important. This is my brain deciding what is a priority, and sieving out the unnecessary information.

Scenario 2: This morning I drove to work behind a blue car. I watched as the car hit an old lady and then sped away. I will always remember the colour of the car, the make and a partial number plate. This is my brain deciding that this is very important information because we will need to recall it later for the police.

If we want our students to store things in their long term memories we must ensure that it carries personal significance to them. For example, my husband encoded my birthday to memory immediately when he first learned it, and has never forgotten it (it helps that failing to recall this piece of information has a punishment associated with it…)Memory 18

Memory 20Memory 21


Ensure that you are creating the best possible environment for students to be able to encode the information you give them.


  1. Manage information…Memory 22

  2. Prepare the brain…Memory 23

  3. Regulate cognitive load…

    Cognitive load refers to the amount of work your working memory has to do at one time. Having to retain lots of pieces of information in the working memory (such as numbers when completing a complex maths problem) can limit the amount of work a student can do. This is why students get a calculator in some maths exams; the calculator is a way to regulate cognitive load so that students can use their working memory on the more complex parts of the problems.Memory 24

  4. Use efficient language…Memory 25

    Memory 27Memory 28

Make it Stick is a fantastic book on memory which highlights this very key point; many of the things we think must work actually don’t. In fact, ‘massed practice’ brings to mind the much repeated phrase ‘practice makes perfect’, one which I heard many times in my own childhood. Research actually shows that repeated ‘practice’, such as Memory 32re-reading texts or notes from lessons, does not help students to embed information into long term memory. Re-reading is quite a passive, easy task. The most effective strategy for long term memory retention is to challenge our students to complete hard recall tasks on a regular basis.

At this point, it is very important to get student ‘buy-in’. Many of your students won’t relish the idea of regular quizzes and embracing challenge. I have always championed the idea of introducing students to the same research I am looking at, and making my intentions and reasoning crystal clear. If I start a lesson with, “today we’re going to start with a difficult test”, they will, quite rightly, be less than enthusiastic. If I start my lesson with, “the best way for you to learn something is by doing lots of little recall quizzes. The harder they are, the better. It doesn’t matter if you get things wrong – getting questions wrong is actually really good for the brain!” they are far more likely to engage. My classes know that if something doesn’t feel hard, then it’s not working! They now regularly ask me for more difficult work because, in the words of one student (we will call her Charlie), “what’s the point in me being here if it’s not working? You might as well give me the hardest one.”

These are the slides I show my students when I’m explaining the research and justifying my regular ‘hard’ quizzes…

It is worth mentioning that other popular memory strategies such as analogies, mnemonics, rhyme, letter linking and stories can be very useful early on in the encoding phase of learning, but can be problematic later on. When students need to delve into more abstract areas of a subject, it is often difficult to extract the original information from the analogy (or packaging) it came in. Don’t stop using them (I still use a few for writing frames), but be aware that students might need to free themselves of them further down the line to avoid being limited.

Variation (for deepening and developing knowledge)

Once knowledge is firmly embedded into long term memory, it is necessary to deepen and refine that knowledge so that it can be used in the most sophisticated way. Variation is a key way in which this can be done.

Memory 39This image uses Conceptual Variation, which is using a range of examples and non-examples to help define an idea. e.g. Show examples of Gothic writing and writing which is not Gothic. Discuss with students what makes things Gothic, and in what circumstances something becomes Gothic.

Rational Variation…

Memory 41

Contextual Variation is best utilised in TV programs for babies and toddlers – it takes a concept (in this case, ‘connecting things’) and develops a child’s understanding of that concept by showing things being connected in lots of different contexts, such as shoe laces being tied, someone plugging headphones into a socket and someone buttoning up a coat: Twirlywoos

Memory 42

One example of using variation in the classroom is this poetry knowledge crush I have used with my GCSE Literature classes. Students already have the poetry in their long term memories. I have created a NEW poem by taking individual lines from the poems they already know – I have placed them directly next to lines from other poems (contextual variation). This means that they are able to refine and develop their knowledge of the poetry because these lines are now next to others from different genres and styles of poetry (rational variation). The activity also allows from old school hard recall because students first have to annotate the lines with everything they can remember about them without looking at their notes.

Memory 43

Memory 44

Another important strategy for developing knowledge and understanding is ‘Definition’…Memory 45








How to get students to struggle (and love it!)

  • Regular quizzes, from memory, even of things only taught or mentioned once.
  • Remember, retrieval beats re-exposure every time – don’t re-teach it, give them a quiz on it instead!
  • Quiz questions should always be:
    • Unhelpful (NO MULTIPLE CHOICE!)
    • Low stakes (the points aren’t the point! They get all the benefit from doing the quiz itself.)
    • Self serving (get students to mark and correct their own, otherwise they won’t log their mistakes for next time. Also, you do NOT want all these quizzes to add to your workload!)
  • Use ‘Spaced Retrieval’ – build in regular cumulative quizzes to your long and meduium term planning
  • Use ‘Interleaving’ – do quizzes during lessons, weave in between topics, quiz on old topics when you’re in the middle of new ones! MIX IT UP!
  • Ask students to commplete large pieces of work from memory (e.g. revision clocks and grids – see below)
  • When questioning, don’t give answers too easily! Learn to love the awkward silences – they are learning GOLD!

Most importantly; tell them it’s difficult. Tell them it should feel difficult. Get them to embrace the struggle, because that’s where the best learning happens!

In the classroom:

  1. Ring fence classroom time for memory and retrieval (I do it for the first 5-10 minutes of almost every lesson). This includes things like quotation recall, spelling tests, plot and context recall.

Memory 50This shows what a student produced from memory in September, versus what she was able to recall by the end of the following October. I highlight recall activities in blue so that the students can see how much they can do from memory.Memory 49

Revision clocks are quite commonly used in schools now. Revision grids work in the same way but are perhaps a little more versatile – you can put any heading you like in the grid squares and students have the time you give them (this can be directed at a whole class or individual level) to complete it. The first revision grid below also has some boxes which ask students to draw images to go with quotations, which is a form of ‘dual coding’ (see below for more on this). The second revision grid is an example from an art class.

Here are a couple of examples of quiz activities I do with my own students/ They include traditional quiz questions and quotation recall activities. I also use cloze exercises for quotation recall in the earlier stages and then gradually remove that support.:

Dual Coding

Memory 56Memory 57

Here are some examples from History, Biology and English…

Dual coding can also work with other stimuli, such as learning something in more than one language, using music alongside content and using tactile experiences.

Another important ‘hook’ for learning harks back to something I talked about earlier in this post; the emotional brain. If we can tie a piece of information we want students to learn to an emotional experience (such as humour, joy, sadness, empathy), we can help them to embed it more readily, because it has been given personal significance.

When doing quotation recall and chanting with my students, I used my son’s toy guitar. Seeing me dance around at the front of the room was, putting it mildly, memorable. This was because it was funny, and the class shared a sense of ‘what is she doing? She is utterly bizarre.’ This experience, for many students, gave the content some personal significance.

Similarly, I have used a number of current news stories featuring events and people who have a real emotional connection with our students. Many of my students live in the high rise flats which surround our school, so talking about how Stormzy challenged the government over its handling of the Grenfell disaster, was a highly emotional activity for my class. We then went on to discuss the ways in which William Blake and many of the other Romantic poets were pushing for social change, and that Blake’s raw depiction of a young mother struggling to care for her baby in London is the same kind of social protest as Stormzy’s at the MOBO Awards. Again, this gained personal significance for these students, who still remember to talk about Blake’s anti-government, revolutionary stance in their poetry essays.


Memory 69

Metacognition can be a highly effective strategy for promoting retention and recall. If students are able to identify the things they still don’t know, they are noting these things for future encoding.

I use a range of strategies to support my students to master their own learning and engage fully in metacognition. This is one of the things I do very early on in this process in order to scaffold their thinking…

Memory 70

To understand more about metacognition, I would highly recommend the recent report from the EEF: EEF Metacognition


My key goal in creating a memory rich classroom is that students will not reach April of Y11 and suddenly start to revise in panic. The whole point of the strategies above is that, from the very start, we embed routines and good practices for retention and recall, so that students are growing their bank of knowledge over a prolonged period of time. Massed revision, therefore, should not be so important.

It is, however, vital that we teach students how to revise. As we draw close to exams, it is easy for students to fall into some of the bad habits I’ve already mentioned, and start doing ‘revision’ which consists of nothing more than re-reading content and re-writing notes (the easy stuff which has NO positive impact!). They also often fall into the trap of saying they will ‘do History’ for two hours, without any plan for what they will do in that time.

This is an example of a revision menu I have used with my class – it has a bank of challenging activities which they must complete from memory. It has a mix of active and passive activities, and also allows students to make up their revision period (say an hour) with activities of different lengths.

Memory 72Memory 73

In my experience, giving students a revision menu like this has had a very positive effect on their work during the holidays, and given them a more realistic approach to independent work.

Memory 74

I would strongly recommend that you read these authors for more information on memory and recall. I have taken heavily from Peps Mccrae’s book (one of the best things I have ever read on education) and the article on the brain by Kenneth Wesson.

I’d love to hear from you if you find this useful, or have any comments which might improve anything I’ve said on the cognitive science side of things – I am by no means an expert!


Vocabulary Flood



I am very blessed to work in a school where most of my students have a talent I do not possess. Over 75% of our students speak something other than English as their first language, and many of them speak three, four or even five languages fluently. There are 72 languages spoken in our school community. Walking through our corridors is a very humbling experience for someone like myself who scraped a grade C in GCSE French; our students are constantly slipping in and out of various languages, often creating their own unique patois as they attempt to transcend cultural and linguistic barriers to share ideas with their friends.

To me, someone who can converse so freely in a range of languages is someone to be admired. Unfortunately, this trait in a student isn’t always seen as the positive, brilliant thing it truly is. I will confess that, before working at my current school, I used to feel some trepidation when planning for EAL students. It is an inescapable fact that, for some students, EAL becomes a label which is synonymous with being ‘less able’ and, though all schools definitely have the right intentions at heart, the external pressures we face often mean that we don’t have the necessary resources to support these students in the way they deserve. Couple that with a long term government failure to support communities with high levels of immigration, and the fact that these generally fall into areas which are among the most economically deprived in our society, EAL students have a raw deal however you look at it.

Political rant over. My own school has a very strong provision (both pastoral and academic) for EAL students. I teach a Y10 class where all but two students are EAL. I have students speaking Swahili, Romanian, Portugese, Panjabi, Afrikaans, Czech, Spanish, Urdu, Congolese and more. Every student in the class is also Pupil Premium, and they have a range of challenges outside the classroom. They are supremely ambitious and, though their official data would label them ‘LA’ in most schools, students with these advanced linguistic skills can make incredibly rapid progress if we provide them with high levels of challenge and frequently expose them to academic language.


This term I have been conducting a piece of action research with this group and have had quite staggering results.

I started with the premise that: students can’t express high level concepts without the necessary academic vocabulary, and the more students are exposed to vocabulary used in context, the more they will learn, the more they will use!

I have literally FLOODED my lessons with high level vocabulary using the strategies below. If I expose students to 30 new words per week, then at least some will stick and, even if that’s a tiny proportion, that’s still more than they knew before!

Practical Strategies

  1. Paint Samplerspaint sampler: Use these colour scales (easily found for free at your local DIY shop!) to get students to rank students in order of intensity. This allows students to see a range of synonyms and helps them to choose the most appropriate version for a particular task. e.g. you wouldn’t use the word ‘seething’ to describe your emotions in a formal letter of complaint because it’s far too raw, but ‘frustrated’ would be fine. With this strategy, students are able to explore the power and potential of vocabulary, and their writing becomes more precise.
  2. Taxonomies: Categorise words to create vocabulary banks which students can draw upon when completing different tasks. This gives students a greater appreciation of the wealth of vocabulary options at their disposal. Here is one I used with my Y10 class for the GCSE Anthology (Conflict theme):taxonomy
  3. High Level Models: Write model responses with sophisticated vocabulary used in context. ALWAYS be aspirational! Never apologise for pitching things high; my class has official targets between GCSE grade 2-6, but I tell them explicitly that the models are grade 8/9. If you can show a high level model, then break it down and show them how it ticks, you de-mistify their sense of what the top grades look like. Vocabulary is one element of great writing, but it’s one which is really tangible and accessible. In the paragraph below, I use the words: hubris, transitory, central, immortalize, preserve, maintain, fruitless, superficial, critique, exploit, pawns. In their next essays, I challenged students to use at least one of these new words. Most used three or more; the taste of a grade 8/9 paragraph was enough to make them push themselves.model paragraph
  4. ‘Hot’ or ‘Not’ list: (Original idea from Amy Thompson @Ladbroa01) Provide a list of words which your weaker students can use as a ‘hot’ list in their writing, and which your stronger students use as a ‘not’ list to force them to use more sophisticated synonyms. You can also do this by giving two lists of words, such as the one below.hot or not
  5. Vocabulary Explosion: I always tell my students, the examiner doesn’t know anything at all about you, apart from the words on the page. They don’t know your target grade, your EAL status or your history. If you can SOUND like a grade 8+ student, then they will TREAT you like one! When I worked in a private school at the start of my career, the difference was that those students had a wide and varied vocabulary and were able to express their ideas with ease. This year, I have been training my students to memorise vocabulary which will help them with potential exam topics (e.g. a list of words to describe Lady Macbeth). They then do a ‘vocabulary explosion’ when they see an exam question, which helps them to formulate their ideas and express challenging concepts. This has been the most high impact strategy I’ve used with students, and makes a huge difference to their confidence and the sophistication of their writing.question explosion

differentiation (with a small ‘d’)

This post is based on workshops I have led this summer at both the Leeds Trinity University NQT Conference, and at Teaching and Learning Leeds 2017 (hosted by The Grammar School at Leeds). If you attended either of these sessions and have questions, suggestions or comments, I would love to hear them @funkypedagogy, or write a comment below. My thanks to Anne Williams (@agwilliams9) and Charlotte Wright (@commahound) for asking me to speak at these brilliant events and providing the impetus I needed.


differentiation: know your students and act accordingly. Anything which seeks to complicate this beautifully simple idea is missing the point.

There have been a number of heated debates in the teaching community in recent years about inclusion vs. aspiration; accessibility vs. challenge; differentiation vs. mastery. Such debates seek to set educational approaches up in opposition to each other and, in doing so, take each of those approaches to their most ridiculous extreme. differentiation does not mean that we should ‘dumb down’ the curriculum until it has no challenge at all, nor does Mastery mean that we never respond to students’ individual needs. Let’s do ourselves a favour and stop taking things so seriously!

The best practice I have ever seen, blends the best bits from a range of schools of thought like a classroom pick ‘n’ mix. differentiation is a powerful tool, but IT IS NOT THE GRAIL! It is not going to save you! It is not going to give you all the answers and solve all your problems! differentiation is just an umbrella term for a rag tag bunch of ideas which, if used judiciously, might just help your students to engage and make progress.

The following ideas are not new and they are not revolutionary but, in my experience, they work.

Why is it important?

differentiation recognises that every student is an individual. There are a huge number of factors which impact the young people in front of us, and these go beyond academic ability. We might differentiate in a lesson according to a student’s level of skill in our subject, but we might also consider: family circumstances; hobbies and interests; mental health issues (such as anxiety); confidence levels; recently assessed work; SEND needs; spontaneous needs within a lesson; whether they ate lunch today; student ambitions for the future, and even what happened in the local community the night before.

I work in a school in Bradford with very challenging circumstances; our children are faced with a huge number of barriers to their learning. Regardless of the kind of school you work in, every child has complex and significant individual needs at some time or other during their school career, and differentiation is about responding to these needs and ensuring that every child can succeed.


Hard vs. Soft Data

When I was an NQT, I tended to use hard data (test results, target and predicted grades) as a basis for planning and differentiation. I might have had separate work sheets for levels 4, 5 and 6 letter writing, or had a grade A* extension activity. While these strategies do have some benefit, the use of hard data alone can limit us to support students only on the basis of cold numbers (which are probably weeks out of date!), and ignore all of the more flexible soft data which is available to us.


Marking as planning…


Soft data from marking is the most recent and therefore the most relevant information we have. If we mark regularly, we can make key observations:

  • This student doesn’t understand this process…
  • These students are way ahead in this topic…
  • These six students don’t understand the key terminology from the lesson…
  • This student doesn’t know how to embed quotations…

Here is an example of how live marking might develop into differentiated planning:

  1. Identify students…


2. Observe skills through marking…


3. Range of personalised solutions…


n.b. NONE of these strategies is going to work every time – try something out, review it, change it and try again!

Seating Plans

Seating plans are a little controversial. I don’t really use them to arrange the seating in my room; I alter seating on a lesson by lesson basis depending on what activity we are doing. For me, seating plans are a way to record information about students both for my own planning, and to support people who might cover my lessons. This seating plan was first developed at my old school by a very talented AST. Since then, my department at my current school have continued to tinker with it, and this is what they look like:


We use a colour coding system to record information according to literacy levels, engagement (including behaviour), challenge levels and personal context. Here are some examples:


I tend not to include much hard data on seating plans, but often scribble the most recent mock grades etc. on in pen as they happen.

Seating plans should…

  • …be a live document (scribbled on and added to regularly)
  • …include information which is relevant to your school and classroom practice (SEND, EAL, LAC, PPG etc.)
  • …be used to inform planning, seating etc.
  • …be useful (don’t waste your time if you won’t use it!)

Anonymised seating plan:

Strategies and Resources

  1. Support stations

These need a bit of planning and (dare I say it…?) printing! Support stations are areas around a classroom which provide differentiated support and strategies for students. These can be dictated by the teacher, or students can choose for themselves where to go.


In the example above, each table has a very specific target based on my marking of student writing. Each table has a range of resources and activities which will support students in a specific skill.

In the example below, students are able to choose for themselves what level of support they need, and can more up in difficulty over the course of a lesson.


2. Multiple lessons in one

This strategy is useful when you have a clear and sizeable gap in skill within one group. I teach a mixed ability Y8 class which ranges from students who can access GCSE level content, to students who struggle to access their Y8 texts. In the lesson below, I used the same poem with the whole class (‘A Poison Tree’ by William Blake), and they all ended by completing an analytical response to the poem, but they all got there by different means. The pink group worked completely independently and had challenging success criteria and prompts to encourage more sophisticated thinking, the yellow group worked in pairs for their preparation and planning, and the orange group worked with me on a guided group discussion to support their writing.



This kind of planning is VERY time consuming and resource heavy. I would probably only do this once per half term, per class. Any more and it loses its effectiveness.

3. Chilli questioning

This idea has been around for ages, but it works! Write differentiated questions and denote their level of difficulty using the chilli scale. Students then have the information they need in order to choose tasks which will challenge or support them.


@TeacherToolkit has an excellent blog post on using the chilli scale for ‘takeaway homework’.


4. Questioning

Questioning is a gold mine for differentiation strategies. I’m not going to go through every idea here, because there is enough material there for a whole book! Here is one strategy which I use a lot and which has never failed me!

I write questions on a topic based on different skills in Blooms Taxonomy. Here is an example for Animal Farm:


One way to use these is to give a different question to every student (based on their needs), and to get them to answer the question at the start of the lesson. You can then teach your lesson as usual, and then ask students to return to the original question at the end (preferably in a different colour), and add to their answer from earlier. This has always been highly effective for me, and students enjoy seeing really clear evidence of their own progress within a lesson.


5. Differentiated questioning in Maths

A colleague of mine in the maths department uses the names of famous mathematicians to categorise levels of questions in his lessons. Students are able to choose which questions to answer, and can move from one level to another as they gain confidence and skill.


Another excellent strategy he uses is to draw a simple line:


…the line indicates that the questions will suddenly get harder. This could be done in pen in 5 seconds, and can provide information to students to enable them to make choices in your lesson, but also to provide some security for students who tend to have anxiety about certain types of task; the line says, ‘this will be harder, but that’s OK because you’re expecting it.’

6. Group role cards

Again, this is an old one, but it never ceases to be useful for me! I’m enjoying playing with unusual group roles…


7. Breaking things down

A lot of my differentiation is about taking larger, more sophisticated content, and ‘breaking it down’ to make it more accessible. This does NOT mean dumbing down or taking content out, it means giving students a route in. It is important that these strategies can then be given to students themselves so that, as they develop as learners, they are able to use them independently; a student won’t have a scaffolded text in an exam, but they can be taught how to create their own when they see the paper for themselves.


This one uses the magnifying glass reading technique, where students are slowly introduced to a text piece by piece. This can help with student confidence levels; it is far easier to read a full A4 page of text if you have already engaged with a sentence or a paragraph in isolation.

TTLeeds17 Differentiation WEBB

8. Cutting holes in things!


You can cut small holes (for looking at individual words) or larger holes (so students can see whole paragraphs etc.). This is a lovely, low tech, whimsical activity which my students love from Y7 up to Y13. Looking at small sections of text in isolation allows students to access detail before being faced with the whole thing.


An analyser can be used for a range of different things. Take an A3 piece of paper and cut a roughly A4 sized hole in it. Now you have a frame you can use for:

  • A peer or self-assessment tool (key elements of the mark scheme and assessment criteria around the outside)
  • A writing scaffold (students complete a piece of extended writing, and the frame has key structural elements and reminders)
  • A reading scaffold (the frame has key question prompts and statements to help the student to read critically)

9. Chunking writing

Instead of asking students to write on a blank page in their book, get them to fill in smaller boxes. They are often tricked into writing more than they might have otherwise…


10. Vocabulary


The ‘Hot or Not?’ list from Amy Thompson (@Ladbroa01) is a great idea:

Create a list of vocabulary or key ideas. This is a ‘hot’ list for weaker students, and they have to try to use the content in their work. For stronger students, this is a ‘not’ list, so they have to think outside the box and find alternative ideas.


10. Metacognition

Metacognition is an incredibly important skill for students who need to become independent, resilient and ambitious learners. Why not use students’ own observations of their learning as part of your soft data?

You may have seen the comfort/challenge/panic graphic from @teachertweaks. This is a great tool to remind us that we need the right amount of struggle in order to facilitate learning. Why not ask your students to think about what comfort, challenge and panic zones look like for them, and complete their own version? As a teacher, you can then use this student reflection to inform your planning.


I talk about marginal gains wheels a lot. Why not use a marginal gains wheel for students to demonstrate their confidence or level of skill in a topic, and then use this to inform your planning and differentiation? I asked my Y11 class to rate their confidence in the skills for the GCSE English Language paper (see below) and then used this to differentiate homework and revision resources.


12. Make ANY resource a differentiated resource in SECONDS…

  •  Filling a bit in for students (if there is a table or chart to complete, fill in a bit for those who you think will need it)
  •  Highlighting or drawing a box around things
  • Post-its for… Reminders, prompts, spellings, key words…
  • Go around the room with your pen and LOOK at work – write comments, prompts and challenges in books…


differentiation works best when you…

  1. Use soft data as well as hard data to inform planning.
  2. Base tasks and support on your observations of recent work – keep it live and flexible!
  3. Make your intentions, rationale and success criteria clear to students.
  4. Experiment, make mistakes, think creatively and don’t take ANYTHING too seriously!


differentiation is just an umbrella term for all the things you do to respond to the needs of individuals or groups. It isn’t rocket science, it isn’t new and it isn’t all that special. It’s just common sense. Having said that, the impact which truly thoughtful, sensitive and creative practice can have on our students is potentially huge. The best differentiated lessons are those where you can barely see it at all – students are just getting on with it because the teacher has predicted what issues might arise, and the level of challenge is there because students are being pushed and pulled along according to their needs. It’s not flashy or bold; it’s just common sense.

All the resources from this blog can be found in my One Drive here: One Drive Differentiation

Please feel free to use/adapt/share/bin as you see fit.

n.b. I have tried to credit all the ideas I’ve pinched from elsewhere, but I know I might have missed something because a lot of this stuff is well established and has been recycled a lot! If you notice any omissions along the way, PLEASE give me a shout and I’ll happily add names of original creators I’ve left out.