On our #rEDDurrington presentation: Practical approaches to bringing research-informed practice to the classroom, the department and whole school


oliver summary

ResearchED Durrington was the first time that Claire and I presented together though we’ll be following it up with presentations at ResearchED Rugby and the Festival of Education later this year.

It was a pleasure to present with Claire (she even let me have control of the clicker) and to share the practical ways we’ve introduced research-informed practice in our departments. We were also more than a little thrilled to have Oliver Caviglioli turn us into cartoons…

In the classroom

Durrington Slide 1

We began with this quotation from Kirschner, Sweller and Clark (2006) which is, we think, a bit of a game changer when thinking about learning in the classroom. If we make long-term learning the goal for our teaching then it calls into question all sorts of practices which have long been established. For example, half-term long units (some of which focus on knowledge/skills students will never come back to) don’t seem like the best model for learning. Such massed practice is great for performance of learning: your students will probably appear to know a lot about a topic by the end of the unit. However, this gives us a false sense of security because it’s so easy for students to demonstrate that they’ve learnt something if we’ve only just finished teaching it. But how would we know if students have learnt how to write a great persuasive letter if we teach it in year 7 and then never come back to it? How can we ensure that the time and effort put into lessons, by both students and teachers, is resulting in long-term learning and not just performance?

One of the things we can do, Bjork (1994) suggests, is introduce what he terms ‘desirable difficulties’. Bjork argues that by introducing these ‘desirable difficulties’ such as spacing and interleaving, delaying feedback and retrieval practice we can improve the long-term retention of what students are learning.

Durrinton Slide 2

If you ask students which of these options is the most effective for learning they will most likely feel comfortable with option 1. Going over material can give students confidence but it’s a false confidence. The best model, in fact, is option 4 – exploiting the testing effect to increase the durability, and ability to recall, what they’ve learnt.

With the new linear GCSE specifications and the vast body of knowledge that needs to be retained, it is no longer an option to teach a text or topic in September in year 10 and then only come back to this in the lead up to exams in Year 11. It is little wonder that the period between January and May of Year 11 was once filled with intervention and revision sessions every lunchtime and afterschool when students had not revised or revisited over half the topics since initial study in year 10.

The model, therefore, has to change;so now revision happens every lesson through different forms of retrieval practice. Students may be expected to recall knowledge from the same topic as studied in the lesson or on a topic from last month, term or year. This retrieval practice is low stakes and can take many forms which therefore eases anxiety and offers students both repetition and variety.

durrington slide 3

In English, it is often assumed that multiple choice questions are inappropriate for the subject and are better left to the sciences. However, a well-structured MCQ can be extremely powerful: both in terms of identifying what students know and in dealing with misconceptions. MCQs can also be ideal for beginning more detailed and evaluative discussions.

Daisy Christodoulou provides excellent advice on how to structure MCQs. She recommends creating questions with ‘unambiguously wrong but plausible distractors’ as well as not telling students how many answers are correct. The examples on the slide combine these ideas. The year 7 example helps to identify the common misconception that ‘lovely’ is an adverb (due to its ‘ly’ suffix) whilst the Macbeth question allows for interesting discussions surrounding blame whilst also being retrieval practice of the plot.

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Providing students with a knowledge organiser is a powerful way to be explicit about the knowledge all students are expect to know. This knowledge can then easily be tested in the form of 5-a-Day Starters which include a mix of questions from topics covered. They’re also a great way to establish a routine at the start of lessons where students are expected to ‘get in and get on’ with their learning.

durrington slide 5

The next step in creating retrieval practice questions was to consider how these might be used to extend students’ thinking and to include comparison and evaluation as well as recall. The example here is adapted from one used by Claire’s Second of Department and this structure is now followed for a series of questions on different texts and for different year groups as a further development of our work on retrieval practice. Creating a bank of these questions by dividing texts across members of the department is a good way to save time and share workload, whilst also offering the opportunity for teachers to really think about students’ possible misconceptions and further ways to interleave topics across the curriculum.

durrington slide 6

Reducing workload is at the centre of nearly every policy and practice we introduce. This principle is at the centre of both feedback and homework policies. The result of this is that Claire has not marked a piece of homework for over four years and Rebecca and her team have not marked a piece of KS3 homework for the past two (though room for improvement at KS4). This doesn’t mean, however, that students don’t do homework – they absolutely do and it is checked in lesson along with seeing just how well the homework has been completed.

Most homework in Claire’s department is checked through retrieval practice in one of the many forms mentioned in the slide. However, essay homework is dealt with slightly differently. When students write an essay for homework, Claire will take it in and have a look over it but won’t give feedback. The reason being that it’s not possible to control the conditions in which homework has been completed: have they used their notes, timed themselves properly, had help or completed it whilst watching television or checking social media? Any feedback given on such homework is not going to be as accurate or helpful as feedback on a timed piece written in a lesson.

Instead, Claire will mark student essays written in lessons and give feedback (using codes and re-teaching key aspects) and then ask students to use the feedback from the lesson essay to improve their homework essay thereby transferring the feedback to a new piece of work. The idea behind this is based on Dylan Wiliam’s assertion that the ‘main purpose of feedback is to improve the student [to help] the students do a better job the next time’. By using this model, it is possible to see that students are transferring their feedback to another piece of work and they are therefore more likely to be able to apply this to their next piece of work.

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One of the best things Rebecca has introduced for homework at both KS3 and KS4 is self-quizzing inspired by Joe Kirby’s chapter in ‘Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers: The Michaela Way’ entitled ‘Homework as Revision’. Not only does it complement her department’s approach to homework (activities which have value but require no marking) but student’s knowledge has improved as well as their confidence.

Students are expected to spend 30 minutes every week self-quizzing on a section of their Knowledge Organiser. They do this by recalling, as accurately as they can, everything they can and, once finished, checking their work against the Knowledge Organiser and using a different coloured pen to fill in gaps and correct errors. This way, progress can easily be seen and it’s incredibly quick and easy as a class teacher to check that the homework has been completed by expecting students to have their books open on their desks and quickly walking around the room.

durrington pic of ko

Students have also enjoyed the challenge of being given blank knowledge organisers to fill in as a clearly structure revision activity. It gives feedback to students about what they do and don’t know and also gives feedback to the teacher about where there’s gaps in knowledge.

durrington slide 8Here Claire shares a more scaffolded ‘blank’ knowledge organiser where students fill in the gaps. These scaffolds can then be slowly withdrawn until students are given a blank knowledge organiser to fill in.

durrington slide 9

Students at KS3 an KS4 in Rebecca’s school also self-quiz on their ambitious vocabulary using the Quizlet App (or look, cover, write, check if they haven’t got access). Students are encouraged to spend a few minutes every day self-quizzing on their vocabulary.

durrington slide 10

In his New Theory of Disuse (1992), Bjork theorises that memories don’t decay. He suggests that it’s not that memories disappear but that we stop being able to retrieve them. You could liken this to having a shoe cupboard full of shoes and knowing there’s a certain pair in there but being unable to dig them out. The shoes still exist but you can’t find them under the mountain of other shoes!

What’s really exciting about Bjork’s ideas is that it suggests we have an infinite long term memory store – there’s potentially no limit to the amount of knowledge we could know but we need to get better at retrieving that information.

However, there’s a barrier to getting things into our long term memory: our working memory. Our working memory is limited and there’s research to suggest that our personal working memory limit is fixed and there’s not much we can do about that.

To demonstrate the limits of our working memory, we broke the session up with a quick (15 second) test. We asked our attendees to remember as many of the letters on slide one as they could and then repeated the test with slide two.

durrington slide 13

Of course, it’s far easier to remember the fifteen letters as arranged in the second slide. Although it’s the same letters, the chunking of those letters creates meaning. As teachers, it’s important that we consider how we are chunking information in lessons to ensure that students aren’t experiencing cognitive overload.

There’s disagreement about the number of things we can cope with in our working memory. Some research suggest it’s as many as 7 +/- 2 things whilst some suggests it’s as little as 3 +/- 2 things. The latter is concerning and we must move away from bombarding students with a series of quick-fire activities.

durrington slide 14

We need to reduced the extraneous cognitive load in lessons in order that students can manage the intrinsic cognitive load of what we’re trying to teach them. We can’t change the intrinsic challenge of a text like Jane Eyre (and we certainly shouldn’t avoid teaching it because it’s challenging) but we can change our lessons to reduce the extraneous cognitive load which will be taking up students’ working memory.

For example, we need to ensure that students can see the board easily e.g. by seating them in rows. We need to have periods of silence in lessons so that students can concentrate on their deliberate practice. We need to give students enough time to complete tasks. We also need to work toward reducing the multifarious expectations students are greeted with in different lessons by working towards consistency of practice e.g. expecting that all students in all lessons write with a black pen.

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Dan Willingham argues that ‘memory is the residue of though’ and that students will remember what they think about. Rebecca shared an example of a lesson that almost certainly ensured students did not remember what they were meant to though they probably do remember spending an English lesson sticking their hands in kidney beans and mash potato…

All teachers can probably think of an example from their teaching career where they’ve done something similar – it speaks of a zeitgeist of teaching (circa 2006 onwards but perhaps earlier) where the primary goal of lessons seemed to be engagement. Outstanding gradings were awarded in lessons where poor proxies of learning were evident (e.g. minimal teacher talk) and questionable practices abounded such as discovery learning and group work (de Bono’s thinking hats anyone?).

We must work towards using the most effective methods in lessons such as modelling. There’s lots of evidence to suggest the power of metacognition and modelling. Spending time modelling though processes and showing students how to construct an answer is an extremely powerful lesson activity. Live modelling was a regular feature of lessons before PowerPoint (the temptation to show ‘one I made earlier’ is strong) and it’s something we need to do more of. We need to show students that it’s a complicated thing to construct an essay response but by modelling the process of working through that we are empowering students to do the same whilst also providing them with a model of excellence.

In the department

durrington slide 18

Claire talked about the principles of designing a knowledge-led curriculum and distinguishing between disciplinary knowledge and substantive knowledge. A more detailed blog to follow on this…

durrington slide 19When designing a curriculum it’s important not to see learning as discrete bundles that can be tied up at the end of a lesson or unit. We must also strive not to be dictated to by the calendar (where’s the logic in a six week unit of work other than because this is how the year is divided up because of holidays?) or by the data monster. Too often we distort the learning process by trying to meet certain deadlines throughout the year.

durrington slide 20Rebecca briefly talked through her curriculum design. In KS3 students cover two main topics a year (a novel and a Shakespeare play) but this is interleaved with poetry lessons, weekly writing challenge lessons and analysis of unseen fiction and non-fiction. The rainbow strips across the top are threshold concepts which essentially represent the idea that that we are doing all of the things all of the time rather than massing practice into blocks.

durrington slide 21

Here’s a typical KS3 medium term plan. What you can see here (if you have a magnifying glass) is that students don’t have consecutive lessons on the same thing. Initially teachers found this a real challenge and we had to work towards not blocking lessons together but students have never found this difficult or even questioned why they’re studying Jane Eyre one day and a Carol Ann Duffy poem the next. This may be because they’re used to bouncing from subject to subject. In their day they might go from studying trigonometry lesson one and then the water cycle period two, running around playing hockey period three before coming to English. The other thing that’s been built into the curriculum is whole lessons for feedback.

durrington slide 22

Claire shared this extract from Carl Hendrick and Robin Macpherson’s book ‘What Does This Look Like In The Classroom’. The highlighted section clearly questions the common practice in school of writing lengthy summary comments at the end of a piece of work. Not only are these time-consuming but also largely ineffective.

durrington slide 23

Here’s an example of the feedback sheets used in Claire’s department.

durrington slide 24

Sharing WWWs for the whole class is far more effective, and efficient, than giving every student a WWW comment. Not only will one document save time in writing, but it also means every student can see the possible ideas they could have used and gives an opportunity to re-teach some of these ideas if not may students used them in their work.

In terms of teacher input, Claire will read through the work and add codes linked to EBI tasks, at first this will be next to where students need to include more detail or make changes, but later it will just be at the end of the work and students work out where their improvemnets would be best added. As suggested by Daisy Christodoulou, the tasks are ‘actionable’ and students have ‘something they can go away and do in response to it’. Therefore, instead of writing ‘EBI: Analyse in more detail’ for the 60-70% of the class you may need to use that comment for, you simply write one number and give students a specific task to complete i.e. ‘pick out key words such as ‘milk’ or ‘gall’ and analyse in more detail, considering the connotations of those words’. The next time a student completes a similar piece of work, ask them to prove that they will not need the same target as last time, by asking them to highlight evidence that they have met this target in their new piece of work.

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Rebecca shared an example of the whole-class feedback approach her department have adopted. Students receive a specific numbered target and a whole class feedback sheet (either printed and/or displayed) that includes praise, common spelling errors and exemplars of great work.

Feedback lessons are an opportunity for teachers to re-teach and model where necessary and then students spend the rest of the lesson completing a ‘DIRT Taks’ that will be specific and actionable – an opportunity to act on their targets either by redrafting a piece of work or completing a new task where they can demonstrate that they’ve acted on the feedback and made progress. Students will then draw a yellow box around this.

Whole School

durrington slide 26

The coded marking with specific, actionable targets developed in Claire’s department have now been transferred to the majority of subjects across her school, from science, to MFL, to Latin. The key to other teachers and departments buying into this method is the promise that it is both effective and will reduce workload.

Here’s examples of the EBI tasks the Science department in Claire’s school have given to students.

Whole class feedback has also spread across Rebecca’s school. Teachers have commented on the reduction in time it takes to mark a set of books, students get timely feedback and student feedback shows that they like this form of feedback.

durrington slide 29To help embed more research-based teaching, performance management targets for some staff in Claire’s school are now linked to research. In previous years, the third target would perhaps be to run a creative writing club or lunchtime help sessions, instead, teachers can now choose to have a target specifically focused on improving teaching practice through engagement with research. The examples here are from both English and Maths and include specific, actionable targets for teachers – we know this form of target helps students to improve their work, so why not teachers?

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Claire went on to talk about summarising research for busy teachers which she talks about in more detail in her blog posts: Research: the gift of time and Sharing the research (love).

We ended our presentation with the exciting news that we are working on a book together. Leading from the Middle: A Guide to Effective Middle Leadership will be published later this year by John Catt.

leading from the middle








  1. In the MCQ on Macbeth, is “killed at the hands of Macbeth” deliberately ambiguous? Students may be uncertain whether this means ‘killed directly by Macbeth (by his hands)’ or ‘killed as directed by Macbeth’ or both. The answers would be different depending on the students’ understand of the question. Are they allowed to ask for clarification during the test? If not, the test would seem to be a poor indicator of their understanding. Can you clarify?


    1. Hi Laurie. Best to ask Claire Hill but my understanding is that it’s a question designed as a spring board for discussion and to highlight misconceptions. It’s an interesting discussion to have about why it is that only two on that list are killed directly by him.


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