The Science of Learning: the foundation of solid curriculum design.

If we want curriculum fever to survive for longer than a term or two (and we should), and if we want to avoid what Dylan Wiliam terms ‘lethal mutations’ (explored in this brilliant article by Nick Rose here), then we need to make sure that teachers have a really strong understanding of how pupils learn. This will mean that they understand why particular curriculum design decisions have been made, and how to implement the intended curriculum with fidelity.

To this end, we have created three videos which help to explain the thinking that underpins our curriculum at Reach Academy Feltham. You can watch the first (and most important) one here. It’s on the Science of Learning.

If you aren’t able to view the video, a transcript is available below.


Hi and welcome to the first of three training sessions which will help you to understand and deliver the ReachOut curriculum.

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Our first session is on the science of learning. We’re going to be exploring some of the research that underpins our curriculum approach. It is mostly taken from cognitive science, the field that investigates how memory works, and how people store, process and retrieve information. This understanding is crucial for teachers to understand as it helps reveal the learning process. It also explains some of the decisions that we have taken when designing each level of our curriculum.

So let’s start with a deceptively simple question. What is learning? Take a moment and see if you can state in a sentence or two what learning is.

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I think that this is one of the most important questions that teachers can ask. And the answer isn’t as straightforward as it first seems. Whilst designing our curriculum, we turned to the research literature to help us get a really clear understanding of what we mean when we say that something is learnt.

The Deans for Impact pamphlet is a great place to start, as it distils some of the most robust research findings from educational research and beyond into bitesize principles and summaries.

Peps Mccrea at the Institute for Teaching, now Ambition Institute, also reviewed the literature in Learning: what is it and how might we catalyse it.

Perhaps the most significant book published in education in the last few decades is Dan Willingham’s why don’t students like school.

And Daisy Christodoulou’s Making Good Progress analyses different approaches in both pedagogy and assessment to ensure that we are getting valid and reliable inferences when we check to see what pupils have learnt.

Why is this important? Teachers are often handed initiatives to implement in their classrooms. Whether it is growth mindset, times tables rockstars or this curriculum programme. But we don’t very often take time to build a solid understanding of why and how these approaches work. This is what is sometimes referred to as a mental model. Experts have very strong mental models which guide them during practice. They take action, which results in a desired impact. Where the impact isn’t as hoped, they can subtly (or not so subtly) change their approach. This is only possible by activating that mental model, which will explain why something worked, or didn’t. It can look effortless on the surface to an observer, but the expert teacher is drawing on that sophisticated understanding to achieve amazing learning. So this session is going to help you to build that mental model, to understand the core, foundational principles of how people learn.

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Let’s begin with a definition of learning that we’re happy with. We might start with this from Kirschner Sweller and Clark’s 2006 paper, Why Minimal Guidance Instruction Does Not Work. It asserts that learning is defined as a change in long-term memory. If nothing has changed in long term memory – nothing has been learned.

What do they mean by this? Well, often we will tell pupils something, only for them to forget it soon after. This can be very frustrating, and it seems like the children are deliberately not trying hard enough. In fact, forgetting is a natural, even a necessary part of learning. We quickly forget most of what we learn.

For information to be retained in the long term, it needs to be regularly revisited. And it needs to be connected, carefully, to a larger network of related facts. It needs to build on what pupils already know.

But even this, perhaps, isn’t enough. It may result in what Dan Willingham terms as ‘inflexible knowledge’ that is to say a list of unrelated, isolated facts. Pupils will be able to reel off lots and lots of information, but they won’t be able to do anything with it.

So perhaps we might prefer this definition from Soderstrom and Bjork. It defines learning as relatively permanent changes in comprehension, understanding, and skills of the types that will support long-term retention and transfer.

That sounds great, but how do we achieve this? To understand that, we need to examine cognitive load theory, which provides us with a model of the mind and how people learn.

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Credit: Thanks to Oliver Caviglioli for permisson to use his excellent visuals. You can view more of his work at

This diagram here from Dan Willingham sets out a very simple model of the mind, in particular memory. There are two parts to your memory. The working memory, and the long term memory. The working memory is the part of the mind that holds whatever it is that you are currently paying attention to. It is severely limited, able to hold on 4 or 5 chunks of information at any one time. Any more than that will result in cognitive overload, that horrible feeling of being overwhelmed by too many pieces of information. If you’d like to experience cognitive overload, try and calculate 2437 x 826 in your head. The calculations are not beyond you, you could complete this with a pen and paper, but there are too many chunks of information to hold and manipulate in your working memory, and so you give up.

The long term memory, on  the other hand, is effectively limitless. It can store an infinite amount of information. It stores this information in what psychologists call mental schemas, or schemas. A schema is a network of facts which all relate to one particular topic. So you might have a schema about the Romans, or about the TV series Game of Thrones. Building these schemas in long term memory could be seen as the goal of learning. The more sophisticated mental schemas you have, the better you are at solving problems successfully, as this information is brought to mind (often unconsciously and effortlessly) to support the limited working memory.

But here is the problem. For information to get into long term memory, it has to first get through the bottle neck of working memory.

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How does it do that? Let’s take a closer look at working memory. There are two main inputs that working memory uses to process the environment. The visuospatial sketchpad, which processes visual information, and the phonological loop, which processes auditory information, including your own internal voice. Everything else is processed through a part of the mind called the episodic buffer, which we don’t need to worry about for now. The central executive diverts attention to either visual stimuli or what is being heard. This is how new information is processed into long term memory.

But notice that long term memory is also activated to bring old information to mind. It’s a two way street. This means that anything that you have stored in long term memory can be brought into working memory to help support that information processing. For example, if I asked you to solve the calculation 32 x 7, the multiplication facts 2 x 7 = 14 and 30 x 7 = 210 would be brought into your working memory to help you solve the problem.

Therefore, the more information that we have stored in long term memory, the easier it is to solve problems, or think critically about what it is that we’re learning about. This means that we can learn more easily, and more quickly.

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Credit: thanks to Nick Rose and Ambition Institute for their kind permission to use this resource. If you’re interested in CLT, it forms a core part of Ambition Institute’s Masters in Expert Teaching, which you can learn about here.

Not all information is equal though. When we present a new idea, or concept, it will hold an intrinsic load. This is a measure of how intrinsically difficult it is. How many elements the new concept contains will effect this, as well as how abstract it is, and what prior knowledge pupils hold about it.

Pupils will also be processing extraneous load. This refers to anything which does not help in the learning process, or that distracts from it. It could be some flashing images, or a complex display. Or it could be internal distractions, such as pupils considering what they want for dinner.

Lastly, there is germane load. This relates the way that you present the information to pupils. It could make them think very hard, by asking them to connect different ideas at the same time, or it could be reduced by annotating different steps in a process. Increasing germane load may lead to more robust learning in the long term, but can overload if increased too early in instruction.

All of these different kinds of load need to be considered when teaching, because if when added together they exceed the limited working memory, pupils are less likely to learn what it is that you are intending. So if the intrinsic load is high, then you may seek to decrease the germane load.

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This has an impact for how we sequence our instruction. We want to build those complex schemas that will help them to master the topic, but early on during instruction the pupils are novices. This means that they know very little about the topic and have poorly developed schema. Experts, on the other hand, such as yourself, will have extremely well developed schema. This can lead to expert blindness, where what is obvious to you is very difficult for pupils to get their head around. We, therefore, often underestimate the amount of explicit guidance that is necessary, and the amount of practice pupils need.

Novices and experts don’t learn in the same way. Whereas experts can thrive with very little instruction or guidance, novices require explicit instruction to break down key concepts and model the processes necessary to solve problems and connect ideas.

Kirschner, Sweller and Clark put it like this, “Two bodies of research reveal the weakness of partially and minimally guided approaches: research comparing pedagogies, and research on how people learn. The past half century of empirical research has provided overwhelming and unambiguous evidence that, for everyone but experts, partial guidance during instruction is significantly less effective and efficient than full guidance. And, based on our current knowledge of how people learn, there is no reason to expect that partially guided instruction in K–12 classrooms would be as effective as explicit, full guidance.”

This all has huge implications for how we teach. Our role in helping pupils to build complex schemas through their limited working memory is critical. As pupils develop these schemas Too often, we don’t teach with long term retention in mind. Our curriculum has taken specific steps in its design to help encourage that vision of learning, so that all pupils can have the highest chance of success when learning about their topic.

We’ll take a closer look at exactly how we translate these research findings into helpful resources in our next training session, the implemented curriculum, and how we translate them into practice in our third and final session – the enacted curriculum.


Curriculum: a team effort

All of this discussion around curriculum is really exciting, but a bit daunting at the same time, right? It seems as though everyone else is really on top of all of these changes. And there’s so much to learn: core and hinterland, intended and impact, substantive and disciplinary. In the meantime, we still have to stand in front of the children on Monday and deliver some lessons. Are we getting it right?

Let’s be clear, this whole curriculum thing is going to take years, not weeks or months. And that’s ok. There’s no need to panic, and rush to quick fixes. There will be a level of prioritisation and certain trade-offs. Let’s not replace one workload monster with another.

There is also an awful lot of very academic and technical discussion around curriculum. Again, this is great, and I very much hope that schools will start to use this sort of language and change their thinking. But there isn’t so much of what these new supercharged curricula will look like in practice.

With this in mind, I thought that it would be helpful to share some of the work that we’ve been doing at Reach. Here’s a case study of a year five geography unit, on the topic of Biomes.

First of all let’s recap the three levels of curriculum that I’ve discussed in previous posts:

Three Levels

Intended Curriculum: Subject leaders and Senior Leadership Team

We can’t expect everybody to do everything. We need different people focussing their attention at each level. Our Director of Humanities, Emily Maule, mapped out our Geography curriculum based on her specialist knowledge of the subject (as well as understanding of what pupils will go on to study at GCSE and beyond. A coherent progression of substantive knowledge and key themes and concepts was planned out. This resulted in a key stage two curriculum map that was set out by our senior leadership team that looked something like this:

Curricuum Map

For each unit, Emily then wrote a knowledge organiser with the core facts that need to be memorised in the long term, do develop a schema for this topic. Then, Emily mapped out a clear sequence of lessons to gradually build knowledge and allow pupils to practice geographical skills in increasingly sophisticated ways:


Biomes 7

Implemented Curriculum: Curriculum Team and Class Teachers

This high level work then needed to be translated into materials and resources that would be useful for teachers, and ensure that pupils achieve the intended aims. We decided that creating booklets with all of the text, diagrams, tasks and questions would be the best way of achieving this. The booklet takes a standardised approach to allow pupils to become really familiar with the approach, cutting down extraneous load. Here is an example of some pages from the Biomes booklet:

Biomes qBiomes 5Biomes 3

Biomes 8








Enacted Curriculum: Class Teacher

Of course, we haven’t got to the most important part: how this curriculum comes to life in the classroom! This takes a skilled teacher who knows their class, and how to get them to think hard about the content, how to make links, how to debate ideas, how to stretch them, how to make it fun and memorable, who will need more support, the list goes on and on. With a booklet of lessons already mapped out, and no resourcing to worry about, teachers can focus all of their time on planning how to enact the curriculum. This may mean developing their own subject knowledge, or thinking about how to best model a particular skill. Some teachers find great videos to add greater depth to the concepts, or write model answers to help pupils compare their work to. And they can do all of this safe in the knowledge that what the pupils learn will be revisited and built upon in future years.

Finally, you’ll have noticed that our three levels of curriculum look a bit like Ofsteds. This is in fact an old distinction, and I came across it a few years ago when reading Dylan Wiliam’s excellent SSAT pamphlet of curriculum design. Ofsted have incorporated the enacted level with into the implemented level (I think that it is more helpful to keep these separate). They have then added ‘Impact’, where you check to see if what you hoped would be achieved, has been. For us, we ask all pupils to write an essay at the end of each unit, which allows them to organise everything that they know and apply their knowledge. We then comparatively judge these. We will retain examples for when we teach the units in the future, helping teachers (and pupils) see what can be expected at the end of each unit. Here are a few examples:

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Scaffolding writing for children with SEND

This is a short blog about one specific strategy shared with me by a colleague for children who have amazing ideas when writing, but struggle to write meaningful sentences. Kids who miss out words, or forget their sentence halfway through. Or who write down everything in their head in one huge stream of consciousness. Of course you need to begin by doing a bit of diagnosing to see what the actual barrier is, but I’ve found this strategy particularly effective with lots of children in primary with SEND, or who find writing hard.

The first thing is to motivate them by acknowledging the wonderful things that they can do. Even with lots of bravado on show, these kids can see what other children are writing and often it’s really easy for them to not try so that it isn’t as embarrassing if they fail. I may take a minute to ask them to tell me their story, or describe their setting, then praise the fantastic ideas they have.

“That’s already one achievement isn’t it. What a wonderful description, you’ve put that picture right in my head. Your ideas deserve to be written down because they’re so damn good. People are going to love reading this.”

I then acknowledge the problem. I think it’s important to be transparent about this. It doesn’t affect one jot how much I like you as a person, but you do miss words when you write sentences out. Lots of children have this difficulty and I’m here to help you. We need a strategy that you can use on your own to help with your writing.

Great writing is just one good sentence after another. I ask them to tell me their first sentence. They say it aloud, and I repeat it back to them. We do this maybe five or six times, just saying the sentence. “The trees were blowing in a fierce wind. The trees were blowing in a fierce wind.

I then hold my fists up in front of them. They say the sentence again, but this time as they say each words I count them on my fingers. “The trees were blowing in a fierce wind. Eight words.” If it’s more than ten words we make it shorter so it fits on how hands. Any longer probably needs to be two sentences.

I draw eight lines in their book, each one just long enough for a word. They put a full stop at the end.

__________ _________ _________ __________ __________ __________ __________ __________.

We then say the sentence again, point to the lines as we say each word. Each line represents a word. Sometimes I write one of the words in:

__________ _________ __________ __________ in __________ __________ __________.

They then write out the sentence. They know if they’ve forgotten a word because they’ll have an extra line at the end, so then they read back to see what they’ve missed.

I can circulate the rest of the class while they are writing out the sentence. Then loop back, 30 seconds to plan another sentence together. Repeat.

As they become familiar with the strategy, they can start to do the counting and drawing lines step by themselves, so they are sort of self-scaffolding.

It’s a really simple strategy but one that I’ve found to be tremendously effective.

The three best arguments against a knowledge rich curriculum, (and why I think they’re wrong).

I’ve been listening to a lot of Sam Harris, the neuroscientist, philosopher and public intellectual behind books such as The Moral Landscape, The End of Faith, Lying and Waking Up. Harris invites other intellectuals onto his podcast to discuss topical and contentious topics. A recent episode featured the Vox editor Ezra Klein on the explosive subject of race and IQ. Despite both men maintaining that they were trying to see the other’s side, it was a disaster in terms of reaching any kind of consensus or establishing common ground. They talked past each other for two hours, growing increasingly frustrated as they did so.

Both men are aware of Rapoport’s Rules to encourage civil discourse, though they didn’t seem to do them much good. They are summarised by philosopher Daniel Dennett as follows:

  1. You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.”
  2. You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
  3. You should mention anything you have learned from your target.
  4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

I’ve had this in mind as I continue to work with colleagues at my school on trying to build the best curriculum in the world. I’m reminded of Aristotle’s misquote, “It is the mark of an educated mind to entertain an idea without accepting it”. And I’m convinced that the vast majority of people who disagree with my methods and approaches want exactly the same thing as me: kids who are well-educated, well-rounded, happy and prepared for a life of opportunities and success, both personally and professionally.

In the age of social media, it’s easy to enter a debate in bad faith, defaulting to your ‘tribe’ and presuming bad intentions of those who disagree with you. I think that this is not only a pretty depressing worldview, it’s just straightforwardly incorrect. Most people – and certainly most people working with kids – are good, kind and noble.

So I’ve been searching out the strongest arguments against my position. Seeing what I can learn. What common ground can be found. What follows is what I take to be the three best arguments against a knowledge rich curriculum, and then why I think they’re wrong. I should state that my responses are not original, I have heard them elsewhere and been convinced by them. Maybe you will be too.

  1. Children need skills, not knowledge.

Why it’s a Good Argument:

The world is changing. Computer software, advanced technology and artificial intelligence will outperform humans in most jobs (and not only blue collar work, there are now AI packages which can pass the GP exam, and spot cancers in mammograms more often than doctors). An overemphasis on knowledge will leave children as parrots who simply regurgitate a bunch of unrelated fact lists without really appreciating what they mean, how they connect and how they can be applied in useful and creative ways.

We need children to become creative, articulate, problem-solvers who can think critically and collaborate. I certainly have taught units in which children memorised huge amounts, but didn’t really have a command of the topic that they were learning about, they just churned out fact after fact, almost verbatim from the knowledge organiser.

Nobody will ask a person in a job interview if they know the date of the English Reformation, but they may well be interested in their ability to quickly summarise unseen and new information. These transferable skills are what we should be aiming for. Of course they will be based in some sort of content, but the knowledge that we choose is neither here nor there, it is the process of applying skills that needs to be modelled and practised.

Problems With This Approach:

We can all agree that the end goal is for children to gain the skills mentioned above. What we disagree about here is how to get them there. Two things that cognitive science has taught us is that skills are:

  1. hugely domain specific; and
  2. rely on large amounts of foundational knowledge

Experts who think critically, in the way that we want children to, are in fact doing a huge amount of work under the surface. They effortlessly and unconsciously select, assimilate and compare thousands of facts stored in their long-term memory. Unfortunately, there’s no shortcut for that. You can’t directly teach skills; they arise from, and supervene upon, knowledge. And not all knowledge is equal. There is more powerful knowledge, which allows us to build more sophisticated schemas, and which is culturally valued, which we should be prioritising in the classroom. Anything else short changes children and leaves them ignorant of the great conversation of humankind. It is elitist to deprive some children of the sort of knowledge that the elite command.

We all suffer from expert blindness. As a result of being very secure in the knowledge that underpins the book we are teaching, or formula we are applying, we forget that this is very new to the children. I have been reminded of this as I have recently begun to learn Arabic. Pushing forward too quickly towards constructing long sentences, or trying to be creative with what I’ve learnt is futile and leaves me feeling quite overwhelmed and dejected. What I quite enjoy is lots of practise in pronouncing the new sounds that I’m learning, matching vocabulary, and reciting key phrases. I know the creativity will come, but not until I’ve drilled all of those key facts.

In a sentence: If you want skills, teach knowledge.

  1. Enquiry based learning is a more effective, motivating and natural way for children to learn.

Why it’s a Good Argument:

Have you ever been in a reception classroom during free-flow? Under the supervision of a skilled teacher and support staff, it’s an almost transcendent spectacle. Dozens of tiny people all busily learning and practising and playing and testing. Kirsty is watching how sand changes when it’s wet. Mohammed is threading wool through the eye of a plastic needle. Daisy and Rinedi have found the phonics sound cards and are taking it in turns to be the teacher and ‘fred talk’ them. Nobody is being ‘directly instructed’ and yet learning is happening everywhere. It comes from pure intrinsic motivation, and the room is drenched with joy and purpose.

It’s not just in the EYFS classroom, of course. Mantle of the Expert lessons task older children with a ‘commission’. Perhaps they will be excavating an ancient shipwreck, or making a documentary to commemorate the great war. The purpose is authentic and the students take their responsibilities seriously. There is no greater feeling as a teacher than one of your students coming to school and explaining how they spent all evening working on the project that you assigned them, simply because they were so invested, interested and passionate about it. This creates what is sometimes called ‘unstoppable learning’, and a wonderfully academic culture. Conversely, I have certainly sent my students away on occasion with an indifferent attitude; a feeling that school is something that is ‘done to’ them.

Problems With This Approach:

Homo sapiens have been around for about 200,000 years. During that time, we have learnt to pass on key survival skills from generation to generation. Evolutionary psychologist David Geary makes a distinction between knowledge that is ‘biologically primary’ and ‘biologically secondary’. Biologically primary knowledge is learnt relatively easily as it is key to our survival and success (for example the ability to speak. This doesn’t need to be explicitly ‘taught’, rather it is ‘caught’ or developed through play and experimentation. Cognitively speaking, it does not place too much demand on our brains and so appears effortless and even enjoyable in its acquisition.

Biologically secondary knowledge, on the other hand, includes all of the stuff that doesn’t relate directly to our survival. This is much of our cultural knowledge, but also skills and knowledge that allow cultural transmission, such as writing. Of course for hundreds of thousands of years nobody wrote anything at all, and mass literacy is only a few hundred years old; leave it to chance and vast swathes of the population will be left without this knowledge. Much of what we see through successful enquiry based learning, I think, focuses on biologically primary knowledge (this is especially true in the early years classroom). Biologically secondary knowledge is effortful and difficult and our brains are not really designed through evolution to engage in thinking in this way. As a result, even with a good enquiry question, we will often opt out of thinking about the hardest stuff, allow others to carry the cognitive load, or simply be unaware of what it is we are supposed to be learning.

We don’t know what it is we don’t know, and so new information is best taught explicitly by someone who has thought about how to introduce, orientate and sequence knowledge. There is good evidence (from, for example, Kirschner, Hattie, PISA and TIMMS) to believe that direct or explicit instruction is associated with better learning outcomes compared with enquiry based learning.

A common criticism of SEN provision in schools is that they become the sole responsibility of the Teaching Assistant, the least qualified person in the classroom. However the enquiry based learning approach often has children either teaching themselves or teaching each other for large proportions of their time. In a sense, then, we are devolving our teaching to the children, who are even less qualified than the teaching assistants. Essentially, the enquiry model in most cases is what I call the ‘fingers crossed’ approach. Maybe they will stumble across lots of knowledge, and understand it, and construct amazing ideas that stick for life. But maybe they won’t. I don’t think we should be taking that gamble with kids’ lives.

In a sentence: Breaking down complex knowledge and skills requires direct instruction and guided practise.

3. Knowledge-rich curricula are overly prescriptive, and rob teachers of their autonomy.

Why it’s a Good Argument:

Teachers are professionals and should be treated as such. Providing them with a ring binder of worksheets and powerpoint presentations kills any passion, ownership and spontaneity in the classroom. Much of the rhetoric around knowledge rich approaches is too similar to the National Strategies, where lessons are planned to the minute with a script to mechanistically deliver a bunch of content that has been predetermined by someone who hasn’t been near a child in a classroom in decades, if at all.

Classrooms, and more importantly children, are too complex, too wonderfully unique, too unpredictable to fit into such a neat and ordered approach. In trying to fit them inside the narrow box we built, we destroy any opportunity for memorable, meaningful learning experiences that take children and teachers to wonderful new landscapes.

We must trust teachers, which means that we have to relinquish some of the control and accountability structures that too easily become straight-jackets and unintentionally result in the opposite of what was hope to be achieved. Advocates of such an approach might as well sit kids in front of a youtube lecture with a thick pile of practise questions in front of them. We can do better than that.

And all of this is before we get in to arguments about who gets to choose what should and shouldn’t be taught.

Problems With This Approach:

The first thing that we need to do here is make a distinction between three levels of curriculum: the intended, the implemented and the enacted. I wrote about these in my last post, but it’s worth repeating here because I think they clear up so much of the disagreement around curriculum. The intended curriculum is the high levels goals and content that should be taught and learnt. The implemented curriculum is the materials resources and sequences that allow this to happen. And the enacted curriculum is how this content is actually taught and learnt in the classroom.

Teachers, clearly, have no or little say in the intended curriculum. This is set by government via the national curriculum or exam boards through subject specifications. The implemented curriculum would historically have included textbooks and worksheets. Other high performing jurisdictions such as Finland and Singapore make good use of these resources. However, they fell out of fashion in England some time ago and as such there are very few high quality examples available, and many observers in positions of power (such as senior leaders and ITE tutors) frown upon their use.

This means that teachers have been spending lots of their time creating the implemented curriculum materials from scratch. They do this under the banner of autonomy, but this is an illusion. It is not necessary to write a powerpoint on the Romans, or a story about the Battle of Hastings, or a diagram of the water cycle, or multiple examples of direct speech being punctuated correctly (or incorrectly) to exercise autonomy in delivering these lessons. Teachers should have autonomy, but this should be placed squarely in the enacted level of the curriculum. That is to say that teachers should be spending their time thinking about how they explain to their students the correct way to punctuate, before monitoring the practise through the prepared activity.

Of course, teachers should retain the autonomy to adapt, deviate and enhance sections of the curriculum. That is where the magic happens, and how each classroom is unique.  But this is most easily done when the admin aspects of curriculum have been taken care of for teachers. A surgeon, of course, has complete autonomy as she executes a complex surgery. However, she is following a known and explicitly set out procedure, and has had all of her instruments prepared, sterilised, ordered and laid out in front of her. This allows her to focus all of her brainpower and skill on the still tremendously complex task at hand, taking into account the context of the patient on the table in front of her.

Lastly, the best curricula for children are delivered coherently and sequentially over years, which requires high-level oversight. If each teacher has to write their own curriculum or list of topics they would like to deliver, we could well be in the scenario of children learning about the Vikings in years 2, 3, 5 and 6, whilst never encountering any Asian or African history. Even knowing what children had previously learnt would be tremendously difficult, as it would change from year to year. So if you are delivering a lesson on the emperors of the Shang Dynasty, you would not know whether you can activate prior knowledge on the Egyptian pharaohs, or the Obas of the Benin Kingdom, or the Anglo-Saxon kings; links that will enrich and consolidate and empower children.

Rather than robbing teachers of their autonomy, then, these knowledge rich approaches actually unleash teachers and allow them to exercise it where it really matters.

In a sentence: Teachers can still operate huge amounts of autonomy within a knowledge based approach.

So there we have it. The three strongest arguments against a knowledge rich curriculum, and why I think they’re wrong. But maybe I missed one. Or maybe I got one wrong. Please do let me know if you think so, I still believe in the power of civil discourse, and I learn something with pretty much every interaction I have on this topic. Just leave the pitchforks at the door.

Beyond Knowledge Organisers; building the best curriculum in the world.

TL;DR Scroll to the bottom for the Medieval Monarchs booklet. You’re welcome.

In this blog I explain the journey that we have taken at Reach Academy around curriculum design. It is a VERY long blog (over 4000 words, which will take the average reader about half an hour) in which I explore common practices in primary around the foundation subjects, and why I think they’re problematic. I discuss the difficulty with doing the ‘right thing’ (for both teacher and pupil) and lay out the problem of being a generalist expected to design and deliver specialist content. Then I detail our solution, and the some of the evidence from research that underpins it. I think that it is probably useful for teachers of all phases.

Some of you may have seen the excerpts from a booklet that I posted on twitter, so if you’re short on time and would just like that, then scroll to the bottom where you can download it. It is still the first draft, so there are likely spag errors which will be proofed out. If you have any more substantive feedback I’d be grateful. We’ll be sharing more materials in due course, so do subscribe to this blog if you’d like to be notified when it comes available.

For the more knowledge-hungry, epistemically curious amongst you who would like to dig a little deeper into what led to it, enjoy. (I was going to break this into several blogs but I think it’s better to have it all in one place. However, you may want to read one section then return later for the other bits.)

How I used to teach

Five years ago, when I was a fresh faced trainee launched into the deep end of teaching, I was told by my deputy headteacher that I’d be teaching the stone age next term. Being new to the game, and not really knowing anything in particular about this period of history, I sought advice from more experienced colleagues. “The Stone Age?” they said, “Lucky you! There’s loads you can do with the Stone Age. The children are going to love it.”

I then dutifully wrote down all of their suggestions, which included:

  • Going out onto the field and look for food to show the children how it would have felt to be a caveman.
  • Building a neolithic roundhouse out of card and straw.
  • Learning the Stone Age Song* and performing it as a class.
  • Designing some cave painting art using mud and oil.
  • Creating some stone age jewelry using beads and string.
  • Burying some broken pottery and have the children ‘excavate it’.

I filled six weeks worth of lessons with these activities, and my colleagues were right, the children absolutely loved it. By the end of the term, most of the children had created a neolithic roundhouse that looked something like this:


Success! The children had all made a neolithic roundhouse! Except, none of the children really knew what ‘neolithic’ meant. Most of our time had been spent thinking about the best way to get straw to stick to card. (Pritt stick is terrible for this, in case you’re wondering.) Their lack of knowledge about the topic that we had ostensibly been studying was brought coldly to my attention when a veteran TA, Sue, covered my class for the end of the day. Often, when dropping into any class, Sue would often look at the topic display and quiz the children about it. She didn’t know exactly what they had been learning about, but Sue had amazing general knowledge, and could think of questions about any topic that you’d expect anyone familiar with it to be able to answer.

“They didn’t know that the Stone Age was split into the palaeolithic, mesolithic and neolithic eras,” she gently informed me. “So obviously they didn’t really know when these periods began and ended. And they didn’t know about how we stopped being hunter gatherers and started farming.” That wasn’t all they didn’t know. They didn’t know how old homo sapiens, our species, was, or when it interacted with neanderthals, and why they went extinct but we didn’t. They didn’t know that Britain was connected to Europe by a landbridge until about 10,000 years ago. I could fill this blog with things that they didn’t know.

N.B. This isn’t actually completely true. There were some children who knew all of that stuff. They were the children who went home and had rich conversations with adults and siblings at home. Who were taken to museums and given beautiful non-fiction books. These were invariably the children who were already attaining the highest in the class, and almost always came from wealthier backgrounds. In neglecting the rich knowledge of a topic in the classroom, I realised I was actually widening the attainment gap between the richest and poorest in society.

But I wouldn’t be so sure about what they did know. Gun to my head, I’d have struggled to give you even five facts that I was really confident that all of the children would be able to answer correctly. And the truth was, I wasn’t really clear myself on the distinguishing characteristics of the different eras. I couldn’t tell you the five most important facts; the ‘even if you forget everything else, you need to know this’ sort of stuff. So we hadn’t really studied the Stone Age. We’d ‘done’ it. As headteacher Clare Sealy puts it, we ‘do’ things in primary. We ‘do’ the Romans. We ‘do’ the Tudors. But there isn’t a whole lot of clarity around what ‘doing’ a topic means. Everything and nothing is up for grabs.

This lack of clarity has struck me particularly starkly more recently, as I’ve begun to teach an A Level at our school. After studying the exam specification, I was a little intimidated by the sheer volume of content. But one of the major difference between primary and secondary is that in secondary, all of it – every last bit – has to be taught. I can’t get to the end of the year and say, “We were supposed to have learnt the ontological argument but, you know, we had so much fun learning about intelligent design that we just didn’t get a chance – sorry guys!” Whereas at primary, you can absolutely get to the end of the World War I and think “Gosh I was supposed to spend some time talking about the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk but it’s half term now. Never mind.”.

It is common in primary to complain that there is too much accountability, too many central diktats, too much teaching by numbers. There may well be some truth to this in the core subjects of reading, writing and maths. But I think that the opposite is true of the foundation subjects. There is more or less no accountability, nor any useful indication of what is expected of children in different topics and in different year groups. Ofsted have recently indicated that they will be taking the whole curriculum more seriously, but at primary they are not, in my experience, placed under any real kind of scrutiny. Headteachers and senior leaders, too, seem unconcerned with what happens after lunch. There is almost a tacit deal: teach English and maths exactly as I say, and the afternoons are yours.



Knowledge organisers – searching for the Goldilocks spot.

My first attempt to mitigate this and clarify exactly what was expected to be learnt was to create knowledge organisers for use in primary subjects. I first wrote about these two years ago, and won’t repeat here why I think they are so powerful and represent such a step change. If you’re interested in reading more about knowledge organisers specifically, I’d recommend this, this, this, this, this and, especially this, by Joe Kirby who I believe invented the glorious things. Here is an example of a few that we use:


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Here is a Blank Knowledge Organiser Template in case you want to make your own.

I’ve been delighted to see knowledge organisers become so popular over the last few years and to see teachers think carefully about what they want children to know at the end of a topic, as opposed to what activities they want to fill lessons with. There have, of course, been detractors, and I deal with some of the most common criticisms here. Interestingly, the most common criticism on social media now seems to be that ‘everyone does knowledge anyway’. In short, the argument has shifted from ‘this is such a terrible idea that nobody should do it’ to ‘this is such a good idea that everyone is already doing it’.

We have, however, been self critical as we have implemented knowledge organisers. I am lucky enough to receive lots of feedback from teachers and senior leaders pursuing some of the ideas set out in this blog and elsewhere, and so have a grasp on the difficulties with moving to a more knowledge based approach. The most common issue is (as is usually the case) in implementation. Teachers give out the knowledge organisers, and then wait for the magic to happen. And it doesn’t. Kids tuck them away and forget about them. Also a problem is when teachers (and I have certainly been guilty of this) go into quizzing overdrive, and use the knowledge organiser almost exclusively in lessons, thinking that perfect recall of the definitions and knowledge statements equates to learning.

We also found that there was a huge variation of the quality of pupils’ work in books. Some tasks were rich and focussed on the content of the lessons, but others seemed to be tagged on as an afterthought and seemed to lack purpose. If a knowledge based curriculum – and a knowledge organiser – is supposed to be the great academic leveller in the classroom, then it follows that all pupils’ work should be of a similar standard, securing that core understanding.

From my perspective, then, there are two common mistakes with knowledge organisers:

  1. Focussing on the knowledge organiser too heavily.
  2. Not focussing on the knowledge organiser enough.

Knowledge organisers are necessary but not sufficient. Over reliance on lists of facts can lead to what Dan Willingham calls ‘inflexible knowledge’, which he illustrates brilliantly in this article for the American Federation of Teachers:

Much of what is commonly taken to be rote knowledge is in fact not rote knowledge. Rather, what we often think of as rote is, instead, inflexible knowledge, which is a normal product of learning and a common part of the journey toward expertise.

In his book Anguished English, Richard Lederer reports that one student provided this definition of “equator”: “A managerie lion running around the Earth through Africa.” How has the student so grossly misunderstood the definition? And how fragmented and disjointed must the remainder of the student’s knowledge of planetary science be if he or she doesn’t notice that this “fact” doesn’t seem to fit into the other material learned? (Willingham, 2002)

So, what is clear is that we need to go beyond knowledge organisers. Sure we need teachers, pupils and parents to be really clear on the core, necessary facts that represent a well developed schema of a topic. But we need to make sure that the explanations of – and connections between – those facts in lessons makes the knowledge memorable, flexible and transferable. Unfortunately, this brings about its own difficulties…

The Challenge

Earlier this year Policy Exchange published a report  by John Blake called Completing the Revolution: delivering on the promise of the 2014 National Curriculum. In it, he begins by praising the ambition and rigour of the new national curriculum, a perspective that I share, but identifies the key problem which has led to the failure of real educational change or raising of standards in many subjects.:

Yet the promise of NC2014 is at risk. It has been enacted by teachers with little useful practical guidance and poor training in curriculum planning, based on curriculum resources (textbooks, worksheets and the like) which do not meet the high standards found in other educational jurisdictions such as Singapore or Finland. The English system has also lacked a professional body for educators to advocate for and defend standards of training and provision in curriculum.

The national curriculum at primary demands detailed knowledge of dozens of topics across 10 or more subjects. In many cases, teachers are expected to deliver this using nothing but whatever resources they can find on the internet, the process of which is so time consuming that no time is left to really develop their own knowledge (Not to mention the disjointed effect it has on pupils’ learning). This is no criticism of primary teachers (I am one), but short of being a polymath it is impossible to be an expert, or even an informed amateur, in everything.

But here’s the rub: in the meta-review What Makes Great Teaching? Professor Rob Coe concluded that (pedagogical) content knowledge is the most important factor related to teacher effectiveness. And E.D. Hirsch has shown that the ‘knowledge gap’ is what explains the attainment gap between different student groups. The more you know, the more easily you learn. Knowledge begets knowledge, and if we don’t ensure they get it in the classroom (really make sure), we’re taking a fingers crossed approach to our children’s learning.

And of course, creating all of the resources necessary to deliver a high quality curriculum is achingly time-consuming. So what many teachers, perfectly understandbly, resort to is what Clare Sealy describes perfectly as Twinkl Studies. A last minute search for a powerpoint to flick through and an activity to busy the children with for 15 minutes before storytime and home. The recruitment and retention crisis are driven in large part by the laughably unmanageable workload, and teachers having to create all of their own resources should be the first in the dock for that travesty.

Lastly, this ad hoc approach to curriculum, with nothing other than general topics specified (some which are impossibly vague, I’ve seen examples of ‘Castles and Knights’, ‘Explorers’, ‘Superheroes’ and even ‘Love Island’) it is incredibly difficult to build on key concepts. The idea of ‘democracy’, for example, is best explicitly revisited in multiple units, year after year. So too with ‘civilisation’, ‘parliament’, ‘republic’ and ‘revolution’ and dozens of others. A really well sequenced curriculum that gives children plenty of concrete examples of these concepts requires specificity and higher-level oversight.

The solution

Our solution is in many senses not particularly revolutionary (though we have tried to incorporate the latest findings from research evidence). However, in the years that I have been writing about curriculum and speaking at national conferences about it, I have not encountered many schools taking such an approach. Indeed, materials on the internet and on school websites suggest that skills/activity/enquiry-based curricula are much more common.

We are developing a knowledge-rich curriculum for history and geography which is fully resourced. I will go in to more detail about the components of the curriculum below, but the aims of our project are:

  1. Ensure every child has access to a rich, rigorous and knowledge-based curriculum.
  2. Dramatically reduce teacher workload.

As discussed above, the expectations now placed upon teachers are extremely high. Teachers need – no, deserve – all of the shortcuts they can. Perhaps shortcuts is the wrong word. Rather, we should be endeavouring to remove all of the obstacles from teachers that prevent them from focussing on their core job, delivering incredible lessons rich with knowledge and filled with joy, and making sure that all of the children in their class has learnt the stuff. We are putting all of the subject knowledge, carefully explained and written in great detail in age appropriate language, into the work booklet. Worst case scenario, you just read along together.

There are some who say that such an approach is deprofessionalising, but I’ve noticed that the folks making that sort of objection are invariably not full-time class teachers. Though their concerns, I’m sure, come from a good place, the criticism reveals a lack of understanding around the realities of having to deliver 20+ lessons a week in 12 different subjects.

We need to move away from this idea that using prepared resources is some sort of an affront on teachers professionalism. It is perhaps one of the most damaging myths in education. An actor would never say “How very dare you give me script. Who is this Shakespeare fellow and what gives him the right to dictate everything that I say. I demand to speak only words that I have written myself.” Just as a chef would never complain “This kitchen is filled with ready-prepared ingredients. Don’t you know that I am the chef. Let it be known that I will only cook with potatoes that I have personally peeled.”

Prepared vegetables are required for the chef to do her job. To exercise her professional skill. To create something beautiful. The actor cannot focus on how to deliver an award winning soliloquy if they have to spend all of their time writing the damn thing in the first place. Similarly, teachers can not exercise their professional skill – engaging students, explaining difficult concepts, differentiating instruction – without the resources that make this possible.

Just give them their bloody fish

In his pamphlet, Principled Curriculum Design, Dylan Wiliam (2013) identifies three ‘levels’ of curriculum: the intended, implemented and the enacted (the latter of which is sometimes called the ‘achieved’ or ‘experienced’ curriculum). The intended curriculum is the overall goals and high level aims of a curriculum. It can include content that is to be covered, but will usually be more objective based. In England, the intended curriculum is the National Curriculum (for non-academies, at least). The implemented curriculum is the resources, materials, lesson plans, and bits and bobs that are necessary to deliver the intended curriculum. The stuff you do at midnight on a Sunday? That’s the implemented curriculum. The last part is where the magic happens; the enacted curriculum.

Obviously, we don’t get a say in the intended curriculum (unless you’re an academy, although most primaries aren’t and even those that are tend to at least loosely follow the NC). It is my contention, and here’s the controversial bit, that teachers shouldn’t be messing about with the implemented curriculum either. They certainly shouldn’t be designing and creating the whole thing from scratch. Teachers should be spending the vast majority of their time thinking about the enacted curriculum (and a bit about the hidden curriculum, perhaps). I’ll flesh out my argument on this in another blog which will be be based heavily on the Chinese proverb ‘Give a man a fish, and you will feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you will feed him for a lifetime’. The blog will be called ‘Just give them their bloody fish’.

Back to curriculum, our implemented curriculum is made up of six components for each unit. They look like this and they are in a fancy graphic because I learnt how to do that on word now.


The rationale behind each of these elements was informed by the work of ED Hirsch, Daniel Willingham, Robert and Elizabeth Bjork, Michael Young, Doug Lemov, Daisy Christodoulou, David Geary, Barak Rosenshine, John Dunlosky, John Sweller, Paul Kirschner, Richard Clark, Allan Baddeley, Allan Paivio, Megan Sumeraki, Yana Weinstein, Hermann Ebbinghaus and Ian Leslie, amongst others. There isn’t space for a full explanation of the research and writing of each, I’ll save that for another blog. Each component is, however, explored in a little more detail in this table:

Knowledge Organiser The knowledge organiser is the beating heart of each unit, with the core content meticulously curated and itemised to clarify the necessary (but not sufficient) knowledge necessary to develop a sophisticated schema for each unit of work. Acting as a planning, teaching and assessment tool, the knowledge organiser makes it clear to teachers, pupils and parents what is expected to be learnt by the end of the unit and within lessons.
Knowledge Lessons Each unit consists of six, carefully sequenced ‘knowledge lessons’, which can be contrasted with popular but ultimately less effective ‘activity-based’, ‘enquiry-based’, or ‘discovery-based’ lessons described by Kirschner, Sweller and Clark (2006) as “minimally guided instruction”. Our knowledge lessons ensure that the substantive content included within the knowledge organiser is brought to life, taught to the whole class utilising explicit instruction with plenty of opportunities for independent practise and application.
Presentations Our presentations support the teacher in delivering the content of the lessons clearly and precisely, whilst aiding pupil memory by making effect of ‘dual encoding’ Paivio. The benefits of receiving explanations through both the visual and auditory channel is well established in the research literature. Not to be confused with the discredited learning styles approach, dual coding can improve the absorption of new knowledge without increasing extraneous cognitive load.
Work Booklets Each unit includes a work booklet which ensures that every lesson can include rich, challenging text to be read and reviewed. Key graphics, models and diagrams can also be included to be interrogated by pupils, alongside key terms and their definitions. Questions and tasks are included for each lesson, meaning pupils get regular practise during the lesson, in line with Rosenshine’s (2012) principles of effective instruction. The work booklet very clearly sets out the standard expected in terms of class work, ensuring high academic expectations of all pupils. Furthermore, the workload of the teacher is considerably reduced as all of the necessary text and tasks are set out for them from the beginning of the unit.
Essay Lessons At the end of each unit, pupils write an extended essay. This ensures that pupils are able to synthesis and elaborate on all of the knowledge that they have acquired throughout the unit, whilst also setting them up for success in secondary school. The ability to reason, argue, persuade and consider multiple perspectives are crucial but ultimately domain specific, and so each essay allows these skills to be contextualised with the knowledge taught during the unit. Essays strengthen the storage strength of the material learnt, whilst helping knowledge to move from inflexible status to being more flexible.
Multiple Choice Quizzes The benefit of retrieval practise is one of the most robust findings in cognitive psychology. Low stakes multiple choice quizzes are efficient, effective and motivating for pupils, whilst providing teachers with vital information about what pupils have misunderstood, and/or what they are struggling to remember. These questions can be easily recycled, utilising the spacing effect and ensuring content is retained in for the long term, and not forgotten soon after the lesson or unit has ended.
Enrichment Enrichment is a key aspect of our curriculum and is sometimes referred to as the ‘hidden curriculum’. As well as motivating students through joyful and exciting experiences, evidence suggests that emotion can be extremely powerful in encoding memories more robustly. We recommend enrichment activities to take place after the knowledge lessons, as they will add to the content being learnt, as opposed to distracting from it.

How are these resources actually used?

This post has up until now been about curriculum, but you will no doubt have noticed that the curriculum materials we have developed to lend themselves to a particular teaching style, or at least for certain teaching techniques or strategies. I don’t want to go into huge detail about the techniques here, but will certainly write about this another time. It should certainly be in the forefront of our mind, though, as Wiliam suggests that “we cannot really talk about curriculum without talking about pedagogy” (2013: p. 9) before citing Hilda Taba:

‘The selection of content does not develop the techniques and skills for thinking, change patterns of attitudes and feelings, or produce academic and social skills. These objectives only can be achieved by the way in which the learning experiences are planned and conducted in the classroom.’ (Taba, 1967: p.11)

We think that this curriculum is best delivered whole class. The sorts of pedagogical techniques included in the plans are laid out here, and repeat throughout our lessons and units so both teachers and pupils get used to them and there is a coherence across the whole curriculum:

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We try to keep everything in the work booklet to avoid faff for the teacher (the idea is that teachers can print them off at the start of the half term and then will never have to resources anything for the rest of the unit). However, we have also written a one page lesson plan for each lesson, which includes subject knowledge notes, and powerpoint to guide the lesson. Examples are here:

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Aaaand finally, as promised, if you would like a copy of our work booklet for Medieval Monarchs to see what all of this looks like in practice, you can download by clicking this image:

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Or click this link here: Medieval Monarchs Booklet 


*I’d just like it on record that this is the greatest song ever recorded. Teach a knowledge based curriculum, but for goodness sake don’t forget to teach them this song.



Taba, H. (1962), Curriculum development: Theory and practice. New York, NY: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Wiliam, D. (2013), Redesigning Schooling – 3, Principled curriculum design, Available at: London: SSAT, Available at:

Willingham, D. (2002), Inflexible Knowledge: The First Step to Expertise, Available at:

Cognitive Load Theory for Primary School Teachers

A version of this article first appeared in Teach Primary Magazine, which you can subscribe to here. It details my understanding of an important theory about how people learn, and how I’ve attempted to apply these findings to my own practice as a primary teacher.


What’s the point of teachers?

What is a teacher’s core business? Today, this question is not as straightforwardly answered as it always was. Education Secretary Damian Hinds confessed during a recent speech that society expects much more from schools than it did a generation ago. Classroom teachers can feel like they have taken on multiple roles: quasi social worker; therapist; mentor; data analyst; medic; the list goes on and on.

Other professions don’t suffer from the same lack of clarity. We all know that doctors make poorly people better. Architects design buildings. Barristers defend and prosecute people in court, and accountants…well I’m not exactly sure what accountants do, but it definitely involves spreadsheets.

So, what about teachers? Flag to the mast, what do we do?

Well, schools are first and foremost educational institutions, and so a teacher’s core business is ensuring children learn stuff they didn’t know before. And by learning, really what we mean is remembering things in their brains.

The useful thing about brains is, despite occasional evidence to the contrary, every child has one. And although they do vary in subtle and wonderful ways, the way that our brains work is much more similar than dissimilar. Children don’t, despite what that expensive consultant may have told you, have individual learning styles.

The manner in which we store, process and retrieve information is broadly the same for every human. That’s what makes teaching so intuitive, and what has allowed people to teach since we started walking on two legs.

This common understanding of how children (and people in general) learn is sometimes called ‘folk psychology’, because it’s what the average folk just sort of ‘know’ about how other people think. Of course, as teachers, we want to go a little beyond what the average Joe or Jane knows about learning, though. And, happily, science is beginning to give us some answers.

One of the most powerful theories about how the brain processes information was developed by psychologist John Sweller in 1998. As such, it’s relatively unknown to many teachers, despite its huge potential to improve the quality of teaching and learning in the classroom. Last year Dylan Wiliam, everyone’s favourite educational researcher, even went so far as to declare that he had come to the conclusion ‘Sweller’s Cognitive Load Theory is the single most important thing for teachers to know’.

So what does this magical theory tell us?

The first thing to understand is that the mind, at a very simple level, is split up into two parts: the working memory and the long term memory. Our working memory is the part of the brain that holds the information that is currently being thought about.

Unfortunately, everyone’s working memory is severely limited. You can only juggle five or six chunks of information at any one time. Any more than this will overwhelm your brain in a phenomenon known as cognitive overload. Any teacher is well acquainted with the expressions of confusion and strain that students exhibit when their working memories are overstretched in this way. You may have experienced the same feeling if you’ve ever tried to remember more than five people’s drink orders at a bar?

The second part of the mind is the long term memory. Unlike working memory, your long term memory is effectively limitless in the amount that it can store. Like a vast warehouse, everything you have ever encountered is tucked away or ‘encoded’ in this part of your brain.

It’s my round. What are you having?

These two parts of the mind are constantly interacting, with new information being stored away and old information being brought back into your mind. The long term memory, therefore, can act as a kind of crutch to your working memory. The more that you have stored, the more space in working memory is freed up.

To go back to our bar example, if you know that mum always has a pint of bitter, dad always has an orange and lemonade, and your brothers all drink gin and tonic, your working memory is free to remember the drinks of the two new friends whose choices you’re unfamiliar with.

The role of the teacher, then, can be seen as effectively managing this interplay and creating the conditions in which children have as much information as possible stored in long term memory, ready to be retrieved at an instant’s notice. Just like repeatedly recalling your phone number means that you can eventually recite it without giving it any conscious thought, ensuring the children get constant practice of key facts is crucial to their success in mastering whatever it is that you’re learning.

Within any given topic (say, world war one, or the Tudor monarchs) there exists a necessary (but not sufficient) cluster of facts that together give the owner a web, or schema, which your brain uses to connect information. Key nodes in studying world war one would be that it occurred between 1914 and 1918, that the principal allies (the triple entente of England, France and Russia) were fighting the central powers of Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire, and that the Allies won. New information can then be added to this web, and the more you know the easier you’ll assimilate new facts; hence: knowledge begets knowledge.

So how should I plan and teach based on this?

This is all very well on a theoretical level, but what are the practical implications for the classroom?

Firstly, we should be ensuring that children think about whatever it is that we want them to remember. This may sound obvious, but it is very tempting to introduce fun activities that distract from the core content that we want children to remember. For example, in the past I’ve attempted to try and make an activity more active and engaging by having students move around the room, searching for facts attached to the wall.

I’ve also asked to dress up as surgeons and ‘operate on’ (cut up) words during an apostrophe exercise. These seem super fun, and there’s no doubt that the children have a great time, effusing about the lesson afterwards, but what they remember was snipping bits of paper whilst their friend provided the ‘beep, beep, beep’ sound effect of an ECG, and not common contractions and which letters we omit from which words.

Perhaps my most common error in this respect is the popular ‘hot-seating’ method. Here, I’ll ask children to pretend to be a famous person, say Ernest Shackleton or Neil Armstrong, and then have their friends ask them questions so that they can respond in character. The problem with this is that the children have no idea what Armstrong would think about what it was like to detach from the secondary boosters, or how he would navigate the lunar landing module, or the name of the rocket that took him out of he stratosphere, or anything else. They are guessing instead of learning, and may well guess wrong and assume that they are right. They mostly remember how to do a good American accent.

Instead, we should ourselves begin by detailing the key facts that are necessary to have a true understanding of the topic. Try drawing out a web of this information, or list it into a knowledge organiser. If you aren’t sure exactly what it is that’s important for the children to know at the end of the unit, then you are leaving it entirely up to chance whether they finish the topic as learned masters or just as ignorant as when they began.

The second implication is that new information should be introduced in small steps through explicit teaching. Fashionable techniques such as inquiry-based or discovery-learning are best avoided here, certainly at the beginning of the learning journey. Instead, we should focus on clarity of explanation, ensuring the children practise each step and have the opportunity to boost their ‘retrieval strength’ by completing regular, low stakes quizzes.

This is easy enough once you’ve identified the information (see step one). Now all you need to do is backwards plan from the complete web. Each little node could become a lesson (today we will be learning all about the geography of Europe in 1914 and the alliances within it) before zooming out to see how it fits into the bigger picture. “Oh sir! Think about the Treaty of London and Belgium’s special neutral status. Of course Britain were going to declare war on Germany after they invaded Belgium!”

This particular example has the added impact of demonstrating how important international treaties are, especially regarding matters of peace and war.

Lastly, activating prior knowledge is very effective in priming the working memory to approach more complex tasks. Therefore, beginning each lesson with a short review of previous learning related to the topic is likely to best set up children for success. I’ve also found children really enjoy such quizzes, as they tend to start the lesson feeling really successful having got something right. In my experience, we massively underestimate how easy we, as adults, find it to move from lesson to lesson and immediately orientate our brain towards what we were discussing yesterday, or last week. For children, it;s worth taking a few minutes just to get their brains recalling the key information that will be referenced in today’s lesson. It also indicates clearly to the children’s brains what they need to remember, as they are being required to bring it back into working memory more frequently.

Bye bye, Primary.

I have some personal news. After 5 years of full time classroom teaching, I’ll be moving out of primary next year. I’ve been lucky enough to teach years 2, 3, 4 and 6 over the last few years, and I know that one day I’ll come back and collect the remaining year groups – but for now, something different calls*.

I feel tremendously lucky to work at Reach Academy Feltham, an all-through school that doesn’t mind doing things a little differently. Although innovation for innovation’s sake is obviously foolish, we don’t mind taking risks where the benefits are likely to lead to excellent student outcomes and more efficient ways of working. It’s the reason, for example, that we embraced Comparative Judgement a few years ago to assess writing across our primary school.

Over the last few years we have had several secondary trained teachers come down to key stage 2 to teach some of our children in years 4 and 5. Next year, I’ll be the first primary trained teacher taking the trek upstairs to teach in year 12. I’ll be delivering an A Level in Religious Studies, and couldn’t be more excited about the opportunity. My undergraduate degree was philosophy, and I did well, but I’m aware that I have a tremendous amount to learn. Luckily, I’ve already received incredible welcome from our Director of Humanities and sixth form team, and am sure that I will be very well supported as I learn the ropes.

My teaching workload will obviously be dramatically reduced, and so I’ll have a lot more time to develop high-quality, knowledge-rich curriculum materials which reduce teachers workload. I think it’s bananas that nationally we’ve arrived at a place where teachers are expected to more or less plan every lesson from scratch. It’s completely unsustainable, and leaves the kids with a raw deal as we spend all our time trying to throw a powerpoint together instead of thinking about how to deliver a precise explanation or facilitate a rich class discussion.

We’re keen to share all of the resources that we develop, and I’ll now have the time to be able to focus on doing that in an easy way. I’ve emailed out our knowledge organisers and odd units to hundreds of teachers and headteachers on request, but the demand is only growing and we need a more systematic and efficient way of sharing what we have. We applied for a recent DfE fund to support us in this work and ensure that it was free for all teachers, but unfortunately this was unsuccessful.

We’re still committed to share everything for free, and so will have to find another way to be able to save other schools the job of having to develop high quality foundation curriculum materials in primary. It’s insane for us all to invent the wheel concurrently, and it’s unfair on schools who don’t have the capacity or expertise to do it themselves. We want to level the playing field in terms of access to curriculum, ensure all children receive content rich lessons, and empower teachers by removing unnecessary workload so that they can focus on their teaching.

Alongside this curriculum development, I’ll also, very excitingly, be doing some work for the Institute for Teaching. Those of you already aware of this wonderful organisation will know that it features literally all of my edu-nerd heroes from whom I’ve learnt so much over the years. I’m going to be fanboy-ing hard whilst there, but will also look forward to thinking deeply about education and how we can support all teachers to become masters of their craft.

To finish, I need to make a request. Over the last few years I’ve curated a wonderful network of primary practitioners, but as I move into A Level and religious studies, I’m not sure who the go-to professionals are? If you teach A Level, or RS, or know someone who does, I’d be very grateful for any advice or guidance you can give me.

In the meantime, we hope to be sharing our curriculum work with you very soon!


*I will actually still have one year 6 class. Couldn’t go cold turkey!