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Teaching and learning principles

1. Teachers should infuse their subjects with joy.

The content being taught, the teacher’s passion, enthusiasm or interest in it. and the joy of mastering it are the chief source of engagement.

We do not expect our teachers to generate lots of entertaining activities or active learning in the interests of ‘engagement’. We always ask, ‘Engage them with what?’ We put the what? (the content) first in thinking about engagement.

Sometimes the content alone will achieve engagement, for example through reading or becoming absorbed in a task or watching a well-chosen, intriguing film clip. But it is down to the teacher to mediate the content, to open up the subject, to reveal its fascination, to show why it is intriguing. Hearing the teacher tell a story well, explain a concept well, build mystery or suspense, or simply show their delight in facts, concepts, and stories is central to engagement with new or challenging material.

It is the teacher’s job also to cultivate pupils’ joy in mastering material securely. We aim for the joy of knowing for knowing’s sake, the sense of reward and satisfaction that comes from having material so securely at one’s fingertips that it can be recalled fluently and, later, used with ease in more complex activities.

2. Pupils flourish in a respectful, courteous environment.

This begins with rituals of courtesy that must be enforced firmly at all times, so that pupils learn the habits of kindness. Polite, respectful behaviour is expected of all children and adults at all times. Our teachers attend to the routines and structures of their school. These rituals embody values of respect and thereby teach them. They also free children to focus purely on the subject matter of the lesson. We hold children to account tirelessly and consistently. We do this by reminding them of basic routines which are essential for total concentration and good manners (e.g. never turning to talk to a neighbour in whole-class teaching) and being utterly consistent in the exercise of whole-school sanctions.

3. The curriculum is the progression model.  

Making progress means mastering the curriculum. It does not mean ascending a hierarchy of generic skills.

The Inspiration Trust is transitioning towards a knowledge-based curriculum. We have based this decision on a range of research which shows the role of knowledge in underpinning skill, and in particular the relationship between academic knowledge and literacy, particularly for the disadvantaged child.

Without the abstract language and expressions that academic subjects teach, those pupils arriving in school with limited vocabulary – typical of the child from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds – will never recognise the vocabulary that makes comprehension possible. Therefore, remembering new knowledge matters. Isolated vocabulary teaching is much less likely to be lasting in its effects than vocabulary that is associated with multiple stories, accounts and descriptions, thoroughly absorbed and frequently used. Once phonics is secure, reading improvement happens through recognition of vocabulary. This can only arise from secure ‘schemata’ (our mental subsurface associations related to each word) which have been formed by multiple, secure knowledge references.

Therefore, if children are learning what we want them to learn, then they are, by definition, making progress. Our teachers hold themselves to account against this idea. This means that progress is not defined by ascending up a generic ladder of skill.  Knowledge makes skill possible. To gain more knowledge is to make progress.

It also means ensuring that every single child learns the definition, formula, or principle being taught. It means noticing if a pupil might be in danger of not grasping and activating pre-emptively. It means swiftly reinforcing or remediating with whole-class, groups, or individuals as required.

In short, it means being thorough.

Where literacy is concerned, the content taught is not a mere setting in which a skill of reading is practised. The content itself makes fluent reading possible. Therefore, the emphasis is on secure learning of the content.

4. Challenge is not driven by hierarchies of verbs, such as ‘evaluate’ or ‘describe’.

Challenge is certainly created by complex tasks and operations, defined by the demands of the subject.  But it is also created through richer, broader content and the achievement of becoming fully secure in it.  Therefore, systematic memorisation and subsequent rapid, flexible retrieval might be the demanding challenge pupils are aspiring to in a lesson. It may be that this thorough memorisation is the most important thing that they need to make progress.

5. Something has been learnt when long-term memory changes.  Memory is the residue of past thought.

We learn what we spend time thinking about. If an activity diverts children’s attention away from what is being learnt, then it not fit for purpose. Teaching should focus pupils on the material, whether knowledge or skill, that is to be learned.  This has three consequences for effective teaching:

  • Teaching should create opportunity for pupils to think about that material, whether through discussion, questioning, other oral work, or written tasks requiring thinking and reflection about the subject matter itself.
  • Teaching should require pupils, where appropriate, to engage in ‘deliberate practice’ so that particular concepts, facts, definitions, or skills are firmly embedded to the point of becoming completely fluent. Vital knowledge of the basics – whether times tables, number facts, phonics, letter transcription, key definitions of concepts - needs to be automatic. Drilling for fluency is an important part of teaching.
  • Retrieval practice, spaced practice, interleaving, dual coding, and elaboration should be used so that memory in strengthened. It is the bringing of information to mind through retrieval practice that strengthens memory.

Our teachers therefore attend to the memories of their pupils. A teacher must cultivate pupils’ schemata so that they have an ever-widening web of reference points in which they are fluent.

6. Time is a precious resource.

Activities need to avoid distraction. Teachers always consider the opportunity costs of time spent. Is the time investment worth the outcome?  Could the time be used more efficiently?  Teachers bear in mind principles 3 and 4. Is the task enabling pupils to master the curriculum? Is it attending to pupils’ long-term memories?

7. Pupils don’t get better at a final performance just by practising the final performance.

Learning is not the same as rehearsing the final performance (such as the tasks required in a summative, end-of-key-stage formal test). Teaching often needs to focus on the building blocks which are the hidden basics behind later success – the times tables and number bonds that sit behind later proficiency in complex operations in maths, the factual reference points, stories, and concepts that later make a fluent, rich piece of persuasive writing in history or geography possible. Practising such a piece of writing is not enough to secure success in that task, nor is it the only measure of progress towards it. We focus on the hidden, the deep causes of later success.

We attend to the causes of later success by identifying the preconditions and prior steps that need to be in place.

8. We work out how well children understand what we have taught them, and then act accordingly.

Teachers use formative assessment diagnostically. If teachers find out through informal questioning or a small, low-stakes test, that a small number of children have not understood what they wanted them to learn, they do something about it. Those children must do more practice or more retrieval to strengthen their memories. If teachers find that a large proportion of the class has missed the point, they re-teach that point in a focused way and used varied methods to check that it is absolutely secure.