Here is the transcript of the speech I gave at the Labour Teachers Brighton Teachmeet this weekend.
If there’s one thing that most of us in education agree on, it’s that teaching quality is what matters most in schools. Intuition tells us that everyone remembers a great teacher they were taught by. Research now shows just how big a difference teaching makes to student achievement. So this strikes me as a crucial question: how can we improve the quality of our teaching? Teachers know that the quality of our teaching depends most on what we teach, how we assess it and how we develop: curriculum, assessment and training.
Knowledge, Memory and Practice
What I’ve realised is this: improving teacher training, assessment and the curriculum, relies most on three pillars: knowledge, memory and practice. I’ve realised this partly through experience, and partly through research.
Instinctively, it seems like common sense. Subject knowledge is important for teachers and pupils. So is remembering what’s been learned; it’s no just good forgetting it all. And no one improves without practice.
Scientific research shows the vital importance of knowledge, memory and practice. Decades of evidence from cognitive psychology has these sharp insights for teachers:
- Background knowledge is vital for all skills, including reading, critical thinking and problem-solving skills.
- Long-term memory is vital for learning: if nothing has been retained in long-term memory, nothing has been learned.
- Deliberate practice is vital for all and any improvement in teaching, learning, and anything else, from sport to music.
In my teaching, I’ve found that the more you apply these ideas, the more insight you get from them. In my English classes, the more knowledge my pupils have about the text and context, the more perceptive their analysis is. Mnemonic cues and recall exercises prevent them forgetting what they’ve learned. And extended writing practice drills with precise, instant feedback have dramatically accelerated my pupils’ achievement.
Training, Assessment and Curriculum
But we haven’t yet applied these insights fully. We haven’t realised their potential. I’m convinced they can be a blueprint for improving our teaching through the curriculum, assessment and training.
We could memorably sequence the cultural capital that pupils need to succeed in our school curricula. This is the curriculum project that Dame Sally Coates, headteacher as Burlington Danes, who transformed the school from special measures to outstanding, is now working on.
We could redesign our flawed assessment regime that prioritises cramming into short-term memory over accumulating enduring long-term memory. This is the assessment project that Daisy Christodoulou, now Head of Research at ARK, is working on.
We could include the scientific research on knowledge, memory and practice in initial and ongoing teacher training.
I’ve lost count of the number of teachers who have asked me, why aren’t these ideas being shared in initial teacher training? Why did it take me two years before I heard about this? Many, many teachers come through ITT and years of CPD without realising, or even hearing about the benefits of cultural capital, long-term memory or deliberate practice. This is the CPD project that David Thomas, Head of Maths at Westminster Academy, is now working on: putting practice into CPD.
So some schools are ahead of the curve on this. And when you ask Sally, Daisy, David and others who are at the leading edge of this curve, they tell you, all the early signs are, these ideas raise academic achievement.
Now, there is no one lever than we can pull in Whitehall to improve the quality of teaching. This is a culture shift, a mindset shift, a long-term change I’m talking about. But there are three simple steps we could take straight away.
- First, we could share the curricula that have been developed in English schools for knowledge accumulation as examples, such as Pimlico’s Key Stage 3 curriculum.
- Second, we could scale up a mastery assessment system designed for enduring memory, such as ARK’s Maths Mastery system.
- Third, we could spread the cutting-edge research on the power of practice into CPD & ITT nationally adapting Doug Lemov’s work for the UK.
Knowledge, memory and practice empower us as teachers: all are within our sphere of influence. Government can create the conditions for this culture shift by sharing the best practice that is already out there. But it’s up to school leaders now to put powerful knowledge, memory and practice at the heart of our curriculum, assessment and teacher training. That, above all, will do most to help us as teachers improve.