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CogSciSci 2023 Manchester 30th May 2023

It’s here! The next CogSciSci conference is just around the corner! Join us at Wright Robinson College in Manchester on Tuesday 30th May to discuss all things cognitive science and science education. 

WR college

CogSciSci prides itself on being truly grassroots. That’s why we would like you to consider if you would like to speak at this year’s event. We are interested in supporting new and established speakers to come and discuss their ideas with like-minded professionals. Last year we had a number of first time speakers who took advantage of our buddy system, with members of the CogSciSci editorial board meeting and supporting them in the construction of their talks. So if you have a passion for cognitive science or science education we would love to hear from you. You might currently be a teacher focussing more on classroom application or an academic looking into these areas as part of your research, it’s all good and we’d love to hear from you.

Last year we were the first to offer parallel face to face and remote viewing for all talks. We are not able to confirm at this time if there will be a remote offer, we have a number of logistical issues to resolve. We will do our best and let you know. 

We will release details of the tickets in due course. For now:

  1. Save the date in your diary.
  2. Apply to speak on a topic of your choice and complete the form

 Speaker applications will close on Sunday 30th April 2023.

Many thanks



Introducing the CogSciSci site

The winds of educational change have blown radically over the last few years. Fierce debates within the education community have become fertile proving grounds for new ideas to be tested, new thoughts to be crystallised and new voices to be heard. Twitter has emerged as an incredible driving force, allowing like-minded professionals from all over the world to connect. Grassroots organisations like researchED have advocated for teachers to become more in touch with rigorous educational research, the edublogosphere has translated empirical findings into front-line practice, and institutions like Michaela Community School have shown us what is possible given intellectual and organisational freedom.

#CogSciSci was a small part of that. Two and a half years ago, a few science teachers connected over social media and started thinking about implementing major findings from cognitive science into their day to day practice. Eager for rigorous standards of thought and practice, we tried to grow our community and increase the number of people sharing, thinking and innovating. Perhaps unsurprisingly, we found that many were desperate to be involved. Tired of conventional approaches to teaching and learning, CPD and non-subject-specific advice, the community has grown beyond what we ever anticipated. There are now over a thousand teachers on our email group, dozens of new blogs, hundreds of new Twitter users and a national conference that sold all its tickets within twenty four hours.

But that growth has largely been organic and undirected. Without a doubt, this has been a strength and positive characteristic of what can now be called a movement. It’s allowed anybody to join in and share: all voices and ideas have been welcomed and we have all benefited. But this kind of model also has its downsides: the sheer productivity of the community has meant that some of the growth will have passed some people by. The ad hoc posting and sharing means that ideas and resources are not collected and organised systematically into any central location. Furthermore, it’s not always clear to newcomers where they should start. Our community’s knowledge is dispersed and spread out, leading to newcomers having to navigate a sporadic and sketchy curriculum that only ever existed in people’s minds.

This new website seeks to fill that gap. Without aiming to be authoritative, it hopes to be at least a comprehensive representation of the productivity of the CogSciSci community. We have tried to collect the best of what the community has thought and said into one place so that we can all grow further. This site will provide training, resources, communal collaboration and intellectual stimulation, all from a desire to use cutting edge educational research to improve student outcomes.

Do please take a few minutes to travel around the site. Some of it may look quite familiar to you, but we have tried to build areas that are truly different to your standard fare.

We’re incredibly excited about this. We want it to become a vibrant hub of energy and dynamism, a place where ideas and innovations become the norm and where science teachers across the world can come for knowledge and support.

CogSciSci is, and will always be, free. We are completely grassroots and run by a team of volunteers giving up our time for a cause we believe in. We ask for only two things in return. First, we ask that you subscribe via email, which you can do at the bottom of the home page. This means that you won’t miss any content and that when we publish a new blog, learning module, resource or departmental development tool you receive it straight to your inbox. We are doing this because we want to help: you subscribing is how we know that we are reaching people.

Secondly, and more importantly, we want you to support us. Not financially, but in terms of the human social and intellectual capital you can bring. We want you to blog for us. We want you to write resources for us. We want you to complete our professional learning courses and we want you to discuss your thoughts with us. We want you to find a fascinating book to read and to write a review for us. We want you to share us with your department and to bring more teachers into the fold. If you want to help or to contribute but don’t know how, send us an email. Without you, without your ideas, your reading and your experience we cannot continue to grow.

So please, take some time to look around.

Write down one of our courses as a performance management target for this year. Think about an idea you’ve tried recently and how you could share that. Look at some of your resources and think about how we can help you improve them. And if you have a question: ask, ask ask.

We’re excited, and we hope you are too,

The CogSciSci team

Choke points and Pitfalls- reflections from a virtual day at ResearchEd Warrington

We are proud to welcome Dr Sarah Benskin– Assistant Principal: Curriculum, T&L and CPD; Science teacher and lover of educational research to the world of blogging. Here she has a great run down of the virtual offer fro rED Warrington.

I am a big fan of ResearchEd and have attended several events, both in person and during the great virtual events.  Listening to so many great speakers and their knowledge around educational research means I always leaves the day with excitement and ideas about what I can take back to school and use and I would say they have had a huge impact on my reading, my practice and my leadership over the last three years.

Having attended ResearchEd Birmingham in March I decided not to make the trip up North in April but loved the concept that GST King’s Warrington (EdTech Demonstrator School) were offering a bargain alternative ticket for under a tenner to listen to six sessions delivered virtually.  I wasn’t sure quite what to expect and I was sat patiently waiting at 9am before realising (with slight disappointment), my ticket didn’t include Mary Myatt’s key note speech

However, at 10am the screen kicked in and I was sat at home with coffee in hand settling in to listen to Paul Kirschner (@P_A_Kirschner) deliver a session on how learning happens. Whilst I felt reasonably well versed on this, I had been asked by the Head of Y11 to deliver an assembly next week on revision strategies and the science of learning behind them  so whilst listening my reflections were very focussed on how I could use this to support students in my assembly. There were some great explanations around desirable difficulties, cognitive processing of information and cognitive load theory that I thought would be perfect to present to students.

This session was then swiftly followed by Tom Sherrington (@teacherhead) focussing on checking for understanding.  I really like listening to Tom as he always makes so much sense and we are a Walkthru subscriber school so I knew I would have many notes and ideas I could take back and think about how we might implement them in our context.  I heard Daniel Willingham’s quote “memory is the residue of thought” in both Tom and Paul’s session and had used it myself in staff training earlier this term revisiting Willingham’s model of learning. Some of the things Tom mentioned drew my thoughts back to the fantastic work on motivation summarised in Peps McCrae’s motivated teaching and I now really believe, in my context, there is a solid understanding of working memory and long term memory but still more work to do on attention and its role in motivating learning. The more I read around this subject the more I think that motivating attention is going to be a key driver for improvement. Tom showed us some of issues for learners around memory- attention deficit; memory overload; lack of prior knowledge; lack of fluency for recall; task completion masking poor learning and offered some comprehensive solutions around checking for understanding and overcoming some of these issues.

I then moved on to the third virtual session was a lively session that was more of a conversation between the great podcaster Daniel Bull and behaviour expert Barry Smith (@BarryNSmith79). Barry’s passion for creating an educational norm where students do not ignore adults was inspiring and again lead me to reflect back on Peps work around motivated learning. When Barry talked about culture and politeness I could see the link to motivated teaching through creating the conditions for learning where students have consistent run routines; good behaviour is a social norm and therefore creates desirable nudge norms; clear boundaries around adults and students where everyone is polite to each other creates a sense of belonging and having explicit values that are modelled everywhere with clarity and purpose creates the buy-in. All of these factors create the conditions required for students to become motivated to learn and this is so important.

Following on from Barry, Zoe Enser (@greeborunner) got us to take a pause and reflect on research for a moment.  She carefully took us back and reminded us of the mutations around teaching and learning of the past (VAK; thinking hats) and possible present (growth mind-set; dual-coding) and potential future risks (Retrieval practice) and asked us to consider how we implement change in our context to prevent research mutating from its intended purpose to something that is in fact detrimental to students learning. I have read Nick Rose’s article on lethal mutations and Adam Robbins recent blog and it’s an area I find really interesting.  It is so easy to read a summary (and I have been writing summaries for staff to access research) or implement a strategy that someone has told you about and over time it loses its intended purpose. The importance of the exploration phase in implementation of change is illustrated in the EEF guidance and clarity of purpose is key. A later session by Kathryn Morgan (@KathrynMorgan_2)  took us back to the excellent Viviane Robinson’s book on reducing change to increase improvement, that considers theories of actions (explaining observed actions that are underpinned by the beliefs and values of the individual) and change fatigue. Kathryn also took us through Harry Fletcher-Wood’s excellent blog on professional learning and the three questions to ask, with particular focus on the reality of our context and to consider the role sense-making plays in implementation of change. Having been completing some professional development myself with Ambition Institute on curriculum senior leadership this really resonated as the sense-making component really helps to contextualise the theory and allows for reflection and dialogue and deeper schematic constructs to form and if we want the change to be sustained that we have to provide the opportunity to engage all teachers.  Nick Hart (@MrNickHart) has also written a good blog on theories of action worth a read.

Now back #REdWarr and the penultimate session. Combined with all the previously mentioned sessions and Kathryn’s session, took me to the key takeaway of the day and the change I would want to implement back at school. This session was given by Blake Harvard (@effortfuleduktr) and he presented the work of a paper by Stephen L Chew on “An Advance Organizer for Student Learning: Choke Points and Pitfalls in Studying”.  Expanding on the earlier sessions of the day we revisited the model of learning again but here we looked at a simple advanced organiser that clearly identifies pitfalls and chokepoints.:

The emphasis was again on attention, working memory and long term memory and whilst much of what was said had been said in the earlier sessions the clarity of this organiser was brilliant. Having cognitive process and cognitive load theory at the forefront of classroom design has to be a “best bet” for student success in the classroom.  Chokepoints were explained as the limitations of our memory processes and pit falls as the things students do to impede their learning such as not thinking when trying to retrieve or highlighting notes. I absolutely loved the concept of pitfalls and chokepoints and I could see easily how this can be applied in the classroom and sharing a simple resources such as the advanced organiser would support staff with making sense and applying the ideas behind the science of learning with a quick glance.  Using all the learning from the day I have adapted this into my own version to take back to school and I also went beyond a teacher organiser and adapted it into a student friendly version. 

I still want to reflect on Zoe and Kathryn’s insights around avoiding mutation and ensuring staff are able to sense-make so I am going to build this into our CPD and I am going to present the student organiser as part of my Y11 assembly next week.  Another great ResearchEd!


Motivated Teaching: Harnessing the science of motivation to boost attention and effort in the classroom: 3 (High Impact Teaching) Paperback – 15 Sept. 2020- Peps Mccrea

Reduce Change to Increase Improvement (Corwin Impact Leadership Series) Paperback – 11 Aug. 2017 by Viviane M J Robinson

Chew, S. L. (2021). An advance organizer for student learning: Choke points and pitfalls in studying. Canadian Psychology/Psychologie canadienne, 62(4), 420–427

rED Brum 2022: Reflections from a ResearchED Newbie

A lifetime or so ago, back in 2018, Tom Bennett came to my school to give a talk to staff. I remember it because towards the end of the session, Tom talked about ResearchED and the conference events that were held on Saturdays across the country. I remember reacting with an almost visceral ‘urgh – no way!’ There was no way I could give up an entire Saturday for something like that – the idea seemed like madness.

And then something changed.

I wasn’t aware what it was exactly that had changed. Not until I read Zoe and Mark Enser’s recent book ‘The CPD Curriculum’. In it, Zoe talks about her own shift in mindset and the all-important difference between professional learning and professional development. She talks about professional ‘development’ as something nebulous, disempowering, and ultimately dissatisfying because it is all too often dictated by external drivers and centres too much on outcomes and evidencing that development rather than feeling it. Professional learning is different. Zoe talks about how seeing herself as a learner again felt empowering, and how taking charge of her own professional learning meant that she “grew thirsty to read books and research my subject and the theories which underpinned pedagogy […] wanted to spend weekends and evenings on Twitter talking to other professionals about the work we do and to hone the practice I had been developing for years.” I recognise this, because that’s exactly what has happened to me. Taking ownership of my professional learning, and seeing myself once again as a learner, is exciting. CPL shouldn’t be something onerous, done unto us, and outside of our ownership; we shouldn’t resent the time spent on it, because that time is an investment we are making in ourselves. This is exactly how I viewed my Saturday at ResearchED Birmingham, and the mindset I was in as I entered Ark Victoria, excitedly clutching my canvas bag and programme, note-book at the ready.     

Morning Keynote: David Didau (stepping in for Christine Counsell)

Christine Counsell wasn’t able to attend to give her keynote address, so David Didau stepped in at short notice. I have to say, if that’s the talk he’s able to give at short notice, I’m keen to hear one of his full talks! David’s premise was that using the curriculum as a model of progress is actually harder than we think. The simplicity of the idea is alluring: if students are progressing through the curriculum then they are making progress. But what if they aren’t? What if assessments don’t show the students are making progress? David argued that the obvious answer to this is that the assessment is flawed, the curriculum is poorly sequenced, or the curriculum related expectations aren’t anywhere near as specific as they need to be. The more specific the curriculum related expectations, the more likely it is that we will teach them. For example, intending to teach students ‘how to write an analytical essay’ is so vague that I could easily end up congratulating myself for successfully teaching this when in reality I’m going to be receiving a wide range of essays of varying standards, some of which may be more analytical than others, in innumerable different ways, ultimately making it impossible for me to judge whether they have objectively met this curriculum related expectation. Much better to teach students ‘how to write a thesis statement beginning with a subordinating conjunction and using a list of triple/quadruple adjectives to frame the arguments they will develop’. This is so specific that it’s going to be crystal clear to me whether or not students are able to do this.    

David also made the point that responsiveness applies at a curriculum level as well as at a classroom level. We know that when checking for understanding in a lesson, the feedback we get from students defines our next move: whether to reteach, provide individual support, or move on. David extended this responsiveness to the curriculum; if our classroom practice indicates that a majority of students can’t answer correctly, this should guide us towards evaluating carefully the design of that aspect of the curriculum, or of the item’s sequencing within it. We also have the power to design assessments which perform this evaluative function; rather than all assessments focused upon discriminating and differentiating between students, we can design an assessment to evaluate the implementation of the curriculum where the goal is that all students can (and do) achieve 100%.

Golden Nugget: teach what you will assess and only assess what you have taught. Disadvantaged students aren’t able to navigate failings in our curriculum, so not teaching what you assess and not assessing what you’ve taught means that you’re disadvantaging them further.

Session 1: Doug Wise ‘From Atomic Habits to the Watchful Eyes Effect: A Research-Informed Day in the Life of an Assistant Principal’

Session 1 was quite a competitive slot, with at least 4 speakers vying for my attention (including Mary Myatt!) so I took a bit of a gamble on Doug, and I’m so glad that I did. Doug took us through a typical day in his life as an Assistant Principal. I found so much to relate to in Doug’s talk (we both oversee T&L provision, are both English teachers, and both teach Year 11 groups) and his typical day felt so familiar to my own. So when he started outlining the research evidence behind those dozen or so tugs on our time that occur throughout the day I suddenly felt personally connected to the research in a way I hadn’t before.

I always try to get to work early; I value that golden time when the site is still asleep and no one else is around. Thanks to Doug’s talk, I now know why that time is so precious to me. He cited research by Gloria Mark, Daniela Gudith, and Ulrich Klocke (2008) that found that although interrupted work is performed faster, this comes at a cost as those participants working in interrupted conditions experienced more stress, higher frustration, more time pressure, and effort. So although I may not be at my most efficient in those early mornings, the reason I value that uninterrupted time is that it helps me maintain a sense of balance and of calm in amongst our otherwise frantic, hectic, and interrupted work conditions.

I also already knew that being out and visible on duty and during transitions was important, but if I’m being honest there was always a tinge of ‘I-know-this-is-important-but-secretly-resent-it-because-I’m-so-busy’ to my outlook. Doug cited research by Nettle, Knott, and Bateson into the positive impact on behaviour of the ‘watching eyes effect’, and James Clear’s view in Atomic Habits on the importance of keeping up positive habits. In the same vein, Doug used research to back up the power of SLT spending time ‘on call’ in setting the social norms of behaviour for students in the classroom, shared with us the dangers of experiencing negativity bias on lunch duty and therefore the subsequent importance of sweating the small stuff, and the importance of being mindful of Rebecca Allen’s “imagined classroom” when conducting learning walks. Finally, and perhaps most terrifyingly because of its familiarity, I strongly suspect that no one who attended Doug’s talk will be in danger of spending their next meeting discussing the colour of the bike shed…

Golden Nugget: Google Parkinson’s bike shed problem: a fiver says you’ll be able to think of an example of doing precisely what he warns against within the last week.

Session 2: ‘Rethinking CPD Evaluation’ – Beth Greville-Giddings

Beth’s session was FULL-ON, in the best sense of the phrase. She began by outlining what recent publications have summarised about effective CPD – in particular the EEF’s recent guidance report on the topic (which I highly recommend and can be found here). One thing that Beth said really struck me – that our beliefs and assumptions influence what we might select from an available pool of data. I think this is something that it is particularly important for us to be cognisant of as Teaching and Learning leads. There is a huge body of educational research for us to draw from, but we must ensure that our own preferences do not bias the selection of research that we choose to bring into our schools. For me, our selection should be unwaveringly focused on effectiveness; our best bets are those things which research tells us are most likely to be highly effective. 

Beth provided a really comprehensive overview of three well-established, existing models of CPD evaluation – one linear, one cyclical, and one non-sequential. I agree with Beth’s view that the non-sequential model is one of the most helpful as it takes into account many different types of professional development and many different starting points. This chimed powerfully with my own experience of professional learning and the experiences of colleagues I’ve discussed this with; our learning can be triggered by a piece of reading, a conversation with a colleague, a tip-off on Twitter: or a conference. From that experience, we move forward in different non-linear ways, pursuing our learning through action and into evaluation. This was where the rest of Beth’s talk then centred, on the inherent difficulties of engaging in any kind of meaningful evaluation of such a complex process. The CPD evaluation cycle that she had been working on, painstakingly identifying common barriers to professional learning, points where the message behind a CPD session might be filtered out by its participants, and advising us about how this knowledge can help us to overcome those barriers, provided a valuable tool for me when moving forward in my own journey of professional learning.     

Golden Nugget: meaningful professional learning isn’t going to be sequential; it’s going to be messy, but in that messiness lies its real value.

Session 3: Breaking (then making) Productive Classroom Habits’ – Mike Hobbiss

I experienced a real watershed moment during Mike’s talk. Perhaps this was influenced by listening to Mike right on the back of Beth’s earlier session when she considered the barriers to CPD being effective, but I’ve found myself coming back to the ideas Mike was talking about several times since hearing him speak.

Mike began by sharing Kraft and Papay’s 2014 research into teacher improvement asymptotes, proving that teacher improvement levels off after those initial ‘sink or swim’ training years that we all remember so fondly(!) in which we improve so drastically. The key then to improving after this point is in changing our habits. Mike’s talk explained why this is easy to say, but incredibly difficult to actually do. Habits, I learned from Mike, are particularly exasperating little creatures: ordered, structured action sequences that are automatically elicited by environmental cues. Crucially, they are insensitive to goals, rewards, and outcomes, which is what makes them so difficult to shift. Here’s the kicker: the habits that took up residence in my teaching in those first couple of years were formed out of necessity to survive the classroom. The problem is that now that I no longer need to just survive in the classroom, many of those habits have actually become maladaptive and are at odds with effective teaching, such as continuing to talk whilst the students are trying to work (one of the ‘bad habits’ Mike discovered to be most prevalent amongst teachers, and one that I know I have!)

The lightbulb moment for me in Mike’s talk was that CPD that targets knowledge alone most often fails to have any impact. And two thirds of CPD targets knowledge alone. Instead, our value is in adopting a model of instructional coaching that is individualised, intensive, sustained, context-specific, and focused, providing teachers with the opportunity to engage in deliberate practice to change their habits at a granular level.        

Golden Nugget: teachers not changing their habits has nothing to do with them not being motivated to do so. Habits live, not in the rational pre-frontal cortex, but in the motor-loops of our brains, which is what makes them outcome insensitive. To change our habits, we need the opportunity to engage in the repetition of desired behaviour in the presence of relevant environmental cues.  

Session 4: ‘It’s Never Just Talking! Valuing the Discourse’ – Sally Stanton

Sally’s talk was the last elective session of the day, before the closing keynote. She shared with us her experience of developing the curriculum within a small MAT and impressed upon us the importance of valuing the discourse about curriculum that we have with those we line manage. This is something we’ve been considering as a SLT at my school in detail recently, receiving individual coaching on managing effective line management meetings, so Sally’s advice really chimed with my own recent experiences. (For anyone interested in developing this area of their practice, Mary Myatt and John Tomsett’s book ‘Huh: Curriculum conversations between subject and senior leaders’ is an excellent starting point.)

Sally’s talk was full of practical advice, such as the importance of separating operational conversations from those regarding curriculum so that curriculum discussions are not sacrificed to immediate pressures and concerns. She was particularly helpful in providing advice regarding reframing information in curriculum conversations, giving examples of how a line manager might be able to reframe a discussion about Year 11 forecast data within the context of improvements to be made to a KS3 curriculum. Sally was also passionate about the importance of curriculum leaders being able to engage with debates in their subjects around the different ways it can be taught, and spoke knowledgeably about the work she is doing within her current role to facilitate

Golden Nugget: the questions that we ask signal what we value.

Closing Keynote: Daisy Christodoulou 

I love the clarity with which Daisy Christodoulou speaks about assessment. She articulates so precisely the problems that arise from using written prose statements as an assessment measure. If you haven’t read her book ‘Making Good Progress’, it’s really worth a look.

After quickly illustrating how even a seemingly uncomplex prose statement can return false impressions of students’ ability, Daisy went on to offer practical solutions. Her premise was that formative assessment can be done through multiple choice questions (MCQs or sometimes they’re called hinge questions) and whole class feedback, and summative assessment should take the form of either a standardised tests with scaled scores or comparative judgement.

I’m a huge fan of MCQs (which is sometimes considered unusual for an English teacher) and I agree with Daisy that they are a much under-utilised tool in our tool-kits as teachers. Many people dismiss MCQs as too easy, but Daisy proved they’re anything but; the key is in the design of the question, and in particular in the wrong answers, or distractors. Make the distractors plausible, or fail to tell students how many right answers there are, and you instantly up the level of challenge; make the correct answer to easy to guess, and you drop that level. Daisy proved this by asking a room of 700 teachers the capital of Moldova. Of 5 possible options, if 4 were Paris, London, Hong Kong, and New York, odds on that almost 100% of the room would return the correct answer. If all 5 options were more plausible, you’re going to get a much more accurate picture of who knows what. (Turns out that out of 700 teachers, pretty much no one knew the correct answer!)

Daisy’s final flourish was to outline to benefits of using comparative judgements. As an English teacher who has spent hours and hours wrestling with vague prose statements such as ‘writes with sophistication and flair’ that are almost impossible to objectively judge, comparative judgement sounds like the light at the end of the tunnel. I’ll definitely be checking out Daisy’s No More Marking project in much more detail.

Golden Nugget: when designing a MCQ, begin with the wrong answer; this should be drawn from your knowledge of the most common misconceptions students make.  

What Next?

I have pages and pages of notes, photos of slides on my phone, and two new books to get stuck into. My head is still fizzing with inspiration and ideas for how I’m going to share what I’ve learnt with my colleagues. Probably most significantly for me though, and my professional learning: the first thing I did on the journey home was to Google when and where the next ResearchED conference was. And then book my ticket.

Thanks to Amy for writing this great summary. If you have ever thought about blogging but want some help to get started just get in touch!

Disciplinary Knowledge – Intent

By Ryan Badham

At the very end of the previous academic year, we were joined by a team of Ofsted inspectors whom corroborated our own opinions of the strengths and weaknesses of our department and curriculum, namely great retention of substantive knowledge by our students but a weaker retention of disciplinary knowledge by our students. From our own results analysis this area had been pinpointed as our next area of focus.

In the Ofsted Subject Science Review substantive knowledge is defined as: “(knowledge of the products of science, such as concepts, laws, theories and models): this is referred to as scientific knowledge and conceptual understanding in the national curriculum”

For examples this could by the word or symbol equation of photosynthesis, the different energy stores, the charge and mass of a proton etc.

The other broad categorisation of knowledge is disciplinary knowledge: “(knowledge of how scientific knowledge is generated and grows): this is specified in the ‘working scientifically’ sections of the national curriculum and it includes knowing how to carry out practical procedures.”

What follows below is my thinking and my plan to improve this part of our Science curriculum. The following will be part of a series of blogs focusing on this area

Step 1: Clearly define what is and isn’t disciplinary knowledge

Disciplinary knowledge is how knowledge is generated in scientific fields and how this knowledge evolves. It is more than practical’s in science. A potential pitfall is to think of it as solely doing practical’s in science.

To help focus my thinking I have used the four areas provided by the Ofsted Research into subject science review.

  1. Knowledge of methods that Scientists use to answer questions
  2. Knowledge of apparatus, techniques, including measurement
  3. Knowledge of data analysis
  4. Knowledge of how science uses evidence to develop explanations

For each of these four areas I have then tried to further describe what aspects would be present within each area and where applicable what that area isn’t.

Broad AreaKnowledge of methods that scientists use to answer questions.Knowledge of apparatus and techniques, including measurement.Knowledge of data analysis.Knowledge of how science uses evidence to develop explanations
DefinitionThe different methods that scientists use to generate knowledge.This covers how to carry out specific procedures and protocols safely and with proficiency in the laboratory and field.This covers how to process and present scientific data in a variety of ways to explore relationships and communicate results to others. Pupils learn about different types of tables and graphs and how to identify correlations.This covers how evidence is used, alongside substantive knowledge, to draw tentative but valid conclusions. It includes the distinction between correlation and causation and knowing that explanation is distinct from data and does not simply emerge from it.
What it isUse of models, classification techniques, pattern analysis, experimentationThe 21 required practicals specified by AQA Combined science specification.  Accurate measurement and recording of dataIdentifying correlations/ patterns in graphs. Using Tables and graphs to evaluate a pointHow scientific models change over time, how evidence builds on evidence and how technological development leads to changing theories. The importance of Peer review.
What it isn’tStudents categorising pictures of animals into arbitrary groupsSimply carrying out the practical.Simply plotting a graph Data collection devoid of analysis or explanation
A curricular ExampleThe model used by Watson and Crick   The Rutherford model of the atomAQA Required PracticalsUse of longitudinal studies to show risk factors for non-communicable diseasesThe history of the atom The history of the periodic table Andrew Wakefield’s work on Vaccines Drug development

Step 1.5 Deciding the powerful knowledge

The above table shows my initial plan. Following on from a really interesting conversation with Karen Mcfadian ( in which she spoke about the importance of breaking down these separate areas into the smaller nuggets of knowledge that make up the larger whole. During this conversation she outlined an example of an observed year 7 lesson about graph drawing in which the aim was to draw a graph and how this overall aim may result in cognitive overload if students are expected to master all the separate aspects of effective graph drawing in one single sitting.  From that conversation I have also now looked at breaking down the separate disciplinary areas into their component parts. Any further suggestions welcome.

Knowledge of methods that scientists use to answer questions.Knowledge of apparatus and techniques, including measurement.Knowledge of data analysis.Knowledge of how science uses evidence to develop explanations
Why scientists use models?Identifying basic lab equipmentLabelling axisExamples of how a model has  changed over time
How scientists use models?Using a Bunsen burnerCreating a scaleImportance of peer review
Limitations of modelsUsing a thermometerPlotting data on a line graphLink between technological development and changing models
What is classification?Using digital equipment such as a probePlotting data on a bar chartMeaning of correlation
How does classification help scientists answer questions?Using a measuring cylinderDrawing a straight line of best fitMeaning of causation
 Using a scales/balanceDrawing a curved line of best fitDifference between correlation and causation
 Using a gas syringeAnalysing data from a table 
 Meanings of hazard symbolsCreating headings for a table 
 Identifying risksRecording data on a table 
 Minimising risksCalculating uncertainty 
 Designing a practical methodCalculating a mean 
 Suggest what apparatus to use in different scenarios  

Ultimately, she was saying we should be teaching the component skills of graph drawing over a significant period of time (KS3) building them up over time rather going straight in expecting them to master the finished product in one lesson resulting in Cog. Overload.

Step 2: Curriculum weaving

Once I had identified the different areas of disciplinary knowledge and began to decide the powerful granular knowledge that makes it up the next step was weaving this into a curriculum. A tick designates where something is already present in our curriculum in my opinion. A ✔X represents an area where it should be present but currently isn’t. The image below shows part of my work on this.

In the next blog in this series, I will look at how I implemented the disciplinary knowledge in our curriculum and any lessons learnt along the way. By no means am I 100% convinced this is the right way to “do” disciplinary knowledge and would welcome any feedback on this. Please don’t hesitate to contact me on Please feel free to visit my twitter page for any of the resources discussed here –

Shelley Parry’s CogSciSci ‘Bath 2020’ Quick Wins and Slow Gains

Shelley is here with her first ever blog!! Here is her take on the talks she heard yesterday. It’s great to help teachers find a platform to share their thoughts. We fund Shelly’s to be a great insight for those who were unable to travel. Enjoy!

‘Does anyone have a £2 coin? What is the inscription along the side?’

‘Standing on the shoulders of giants’ was how Bill Wilkinson kicked off the event at Beechen Cliff School in Bath, and was definitely how I felt as a first time attendee at a CogSciSci event. A serial Twitter lurker, I was excited to meet and hear from people whose work has supported me greatly in recent months. Shoutout to Rachel @BioRachProject for her fantastic OCR A Level Biology videos which help me deliver clear explanations to my students each week, and Adam @MrARobbins whose book ‘Middle Leadership Mastery’ has been incredibly helpful as I started my first middle leadership role this September.

As someone who likes to get stuck in and trial new things, I thought I would share my top ‘quick wins’ from the day and how I plan to implement them in the coming weeks at school for GCSE and A Level classes.

  1. ‘Box Questions’ in SLOP to support ongoing assessment

Tom Millichamp suggested a whole host of mechanisms which can be used when writing Shed Loads of Practice (‘SLOP’) – from non-calculable calculations, adding redundant information and using ‘because, but, so’ questions. But one that I will definitely be adding into my Year 11 Electricity booklets for this half term is the idea of a ‘box’ question.

When students are faced with 10 or 15 minutes of independent practice on a particular task, avoid using terms such as easy, medium and hard, but have in mind your checkpoints where you can identify how students are getting on with the task. For each checkpoint question – I suppose, they are almost like hinge point questions – prompt students to draw a box around it in a different colour pen. As you circulate the room, this will quickly allow you to identify a) who has already moved on to the box question and who is struggling with the easier questions and b) what ratio of students are getting this question correct? By using this ongoing assessment, you could even tell some students to skip a few questions which will boost their confidence and motivation.

While SLOP is incredibly valuable, I have sometimes found that giving feedback to students who are working at different paces can be tricky. Hopefully, with some careful thought on what my box questions will be, I will start to feel more informed about my students’ progress and sticking points while they work independently.

2. The 5Ps for problem solving

Elizabeth Mountstevens discussed a common problem which I encounter in my classroom – students seem to have the hang of a concept, but as soon as you ask them a question in a different way or they need to apply that knowledge to a new exam question, their minds go blank! The 5 Ps is a metacognitive approach to help students realise they probably can have a good attempt at the question and begin to solve the problem:

Problem – what are you being asked to work out?

Parts – what information do you have? How many parts to the question?

Prior Knowledge – of course, this question links to what you have been learning. So what do you know?

Proceed – attempt to write an answer

Post-Mortem – evaluate your response. Could you structure it better?

I have recently created an A Level Biology practice booklet and have incorporated the 5 Ps in here to support students when answering more difficult exam style questions. When I want students to use this method, I have made it clear at the top of the page and left more space for them to annotate the question and plan their answer before they ‘Proceed’.

3. Goal Free Problems

Adam shared the theory behind the ‘Goal Free Effect’ – that students experience a lower cognitive load when a question / task has a non-specific goal. Ollie Lovell has written a short piece which summarises his use of it here, commenting that ‘what I hadn’t anticipated was how asking such a question reduced the barrier to participation for students’.

This links really well to Elizabeth’s talk on problem solving and how students can become overwhelmed with text, data, graphs – all the different parts to a question – that they can forget that they do have the core knowledge to have a good attempt. I think this applies not only to exam questions, but problem solving in the real world.

I will be implementing this concept particularly in my A Level Biology booklets and Year 11 lower set lessons, using the diagram above and modelling how to use the 5 Ps before encouraging them to do so independently. Both cohorts can recall core knowledge well but find it difficult and overwhelming to apply that knowledge in new situations, so by having more focused practice on problem solving and reducing the cognitive load, I hope to see improved engagement with these trickier questions.

Reading List Additions

The day was full of recommendations for books, blogs and articles. Here are some key ones which I will be adding to our A Level Biology library (which students can borrow) and recommending to my colleagues.

Nick Lane – The Vital Question

Nicholson & Dupre – Everything Flows: Towards a Processual Philosophy of Biology

Teaching the Science of Learning – Weinstein, 2018

TeacherHead – What is a knowledge rich curriculum?

Clio et cetera – Curriculum as the progression model

And not forgetting the one we heard about maybe eight or nine times…

Adam Boxer – Teaching Secondary Science

Slow Gains

Of course, not everything we discussed on the day will fit every context and may not be possible to implement quickly without the support of a wider team or SLT. So here are the things I will be considering over the coming weeks / months and striving to improve:

Clear Explanations – supporting the Science team

I’m already a convert to explaining using a graphics tablet and blank canvas, regulating the flow of information to students and directing their attention clearly – thank you Adam Boxer for a really clear and helpful overview of how to do this (I can recommend Dual Coding For Teachers Who Can’t Draw if you haven’t seen it before). I’ve felt a huge positive impact on my workload, subject knowledge and student engagement by changing this practice.

As a Curriculum Leader in Science however, I will now start thinking about what barriers are present that prevent my team, particularly newer colleagues, in moving towards this method of delivering clear explanations. My instinct is that my colleagues may not be totally confident in their subject knowledge / pedagogical content knowledge, so I’ll be thinking about what steps I can take here, such as recommending CogSciSci’s Library of Explanations.

Curricular Thinking – an ongoing project

My school has a big focus on curriculum at the moment and Helen Skelton’s talk has provided lots of food for thought. As the Curriculum Leader for A Level Biology, I will be looking for more opportunities to meet with the A Level team to discuss the below ‘Curricular Questions’ as well as putting these into motion through Helen’s recommended ‘Department Time’ actions.

On a more practical level, in our Biology team of eight teachers, we have recently decided to do more collaborative planning with others teaching the same topic, so I will share the list of Curricular Questions to guide those co-planning discussions.

All in all, such an insightful day which has given me just the half term boost that I needed! Please note that this is not an exhaustive list of my takeaway messages from the conference and the discussions which followed, and I’m very grateful to all of the speakers for their valuable input and ideas.

Thank you to Bill, Rachel and Beechen Cliff for hosting the day. Looking forward to seeing everyone at another CogSciSci event soon!

Shelley Parry

Curriculum Leader (Science / Biology)

James Bullous’s thoughts on CogSciSci Bath ‘2020’

James has been kind enough to write up some takeaways for those that could not make it to beautifully rainy Bath yesterday. Click the link above to go to his twitter page and find links to his other blogs. Thanks James!

CogSciSci Bath “2020” – Golden Nuggets and Takeaways
Like most CogSciSci enthusiasts and followers, I was gutted when the original CogScSci 2020 event in May 2020 had to be cancelled due to the pandemic. Fast forward to 17 months later, the event was reorganised and I had the honour of attending the event at Beechen Cliff School in October 2021. Firstly, a quick thank you to Bill and Rachel for the perseverance in seeing this task through in what must be the hardest circumstances imaginable. I am thrilled to say the event, like it’s predecessors, was a storming success and allowed like-minded Science educators to come together to share ideas, challenge one another and bring out the best in each other. I wanted to share some of my key golden nuggets or takeaways from the day and how I intend to apply them next week in my classroom.  I will focus on a few of the many great presentations and ideas shared and discussed. This list is my no means exhaustive, just what I want to apply to my classroom (and what I will suggest other teachers at my school do too). 

Improving my explanations

In the keynote presentation, Adam Boxer provided powerful insight in to the wonderful world of explanations. An vital skill for all teachers and educators that is seemingly ignored in literature, explanations provide the knowledge students need to develop their understanding further. Boxer provided several demonstrations of explanations, each slightly better then the last, in a way to show two fundamental aspects of a powerful explanations:

* Start on a blank canvas – which allowed the directing of attention and the regulation of the flow of information  

* Direction of Travel – familiar to unfamiliar, concrete to abstract and explain then define. 

I will be using both of these techniques with Year 11 next week when teaching the carbon cycle. I intend on starting with a blank canvas and a graphical pad, showing the processes the students already know and then linking to and elaborating the whole cycle as I draw it live. Very excited for this one! 

Using goal-free problems

When I first heard Adam Robbins share this goal free approach, I was taken aback as I didn’t see where it fitted for my kids and how it would help in exams. I now feel that highlighted my own narrow focus on assessment and Robbins’ presentation this year clarified when and where we should use the goal free effect for maximum impact. The key takeaway being this is not for ‘novices’. Goal free problems can be done after effective independent practice to provide further challenges and get, as Robbins’ says, “More bang for your buck” when it comes to resources. Next week, with Year 13, I will be showing some Maxwell Boltzmann distributions and chemistry focused graphs from Nature/Science journals and will ask the students to deduce what they can from them. I am hoping this will become a rich and exciting discussion with some of the best chemists in the school. 

Using metacognitive approaches to cognitive science techniques

Like most teachers, I have read the EEF guide on Metacognition and Self-Regulation and even written is out it previously on my blog. What I love about CogSciSci events is they really challenge you to rethink your own practice. Because of this challenge, I realised all I had read and written about had been completely forgotten about in my practice. Elizabeth Mountstevens provided a very thought provoking discussion in to metacognition and it’s place in a #CogSciSci classroom.  It made me think, what explicit strategies to do I teach my students? Am I too implicit at times in my own explanations and expectations  of the students? Do they really reflect on how successful they have been with a particular strategy? Next week, I want to identify a strategy I will use, for example Tom Millichamp’s EVERY calculations, and explicitly model this for students, then provide them with opportunities for practice. What I will then do, over the coming lessons and weeks, is provide students with time to explicitly reflect and discuss the EVERY method as a technique. Do they like it? Why? Can they peer assess another students EVERY answers and identify strengths and weaknesses? What other ways can they do it? Mountstevens calls this the Post-mortem (the 5th of 5 Ps) and I am very keen to get stuck in this silent witness of metacognition!  

Redesigning my SLOP to leave breadcrumbs

Shed Loads Of Practice (SLOP) is something we have all become very familiar with other the last few years and what Tom Millichamp did in his presentation was to “take it to the next level”. Through Millichamp’s detailed discussion of what SLOP is (and isn’t), he was able to show clearly the steps to take in order to make success SLOP activities for students. One thing I hadn’t thought of is his idea of leaving breadcrumbs for you to find as a teacher to quickly identify errors or misconceptions.

These included:

*Giving students calculations that can do mentally (8/2) and so if they reach for a calculator (maybe doing 2/8) they have gone wrong. The use of a calculator is breadcrumb the teacher can follow! 

*Providing hints to the answer, for example the first decimal is 5. This allows students to check there answer and get help if required without proving the answers.  

I am definitely going to build some of these two examples in to a lesson on Forces next week with Year 8 where they will be doing F=ma calculations. I am looking forward to spotting those breadcrumbs early and eliminating misconceptions before they form. 
On reflection, there is much more I could write in this review and I am grateful to the organisers and all the speakers involved for such an amazing day. Thank you to the whole #CogSciSci community. I hope this review has provided some insight in to what a great day it was and spurs more and more people to attend these events when they happen in the future. I can honestly say, CogSciSci meetings are the best CPD there is!
James Bullous@DrB_SciTeacher

HoDSciSci’s advice to new HoDs

We asked the members of the HoDSciSci staff room slack channel what advice they would give new Heads of Department. Here are some of their gems. If you are a new HoD and want to join over 300 others in the staff room just DM @HoDSciSci on twitter.

Mike writes: When planning your days as a new HoD, think about how long a task will take and allow at least half again as much time. This covers unexpected interruptions or the job just being harder than you thought.

Liam writes: I wish I’d known the importance of saying no, or delegating a task to others. We can’t do everything and if we try we’ll do it all worse than if we only did some.

Richard writes: When I became HoD I wish I had more developed strategies for difficult conversations.

  1. Listen
  2. Action if 100% sure your action is the best course of action. If not, say ‘I will have a think and get back you you’. Rarely do you need to decide there and then.
  3. Don’t get sidetracked during conversation, say ‘that’s a separate issue ans we can discuss that at a separate time’.

Sarah writes: When I became Head of Science I wish I had realised the importance of developing my staff as teachers. I focused on curriculum development and all of the tasks SLT required me to complete. What would have really made my department excel is if I had spent time preparing high quality, researched based CPD to allow every member of the department, myself included, to become the best teacher they could be. I now see this as one of the key parts of my role.

Joe writers: If you deligate, you have to accept that it won’t be done to the standard you wanted so just accept it.
Unless you explicitly tell people what to do and when they won’t do something out of the goodness of their heart.

Dave writes: When given a task to do, stick to the brief carefully so not to make extra work for yourself. 

Katy writes: That you are not responsible for everything. Delegate and keep to any deadlines you set in conjunction with your team.

Sophie writes: Having a big dream/vision is important but you can’t do it all at once. Decide the highest leverage actions and work your way through them.

Mrs P writes: Focus on your technicians! Not only are they your eyes and ears, they are instrumental in the smooth management of the team. Include them in every decision and set aside time every 1/2 term to catch up – pinch points, administration of resources, even the mental health of the team, as some teachers pour their hearts out to techs, but fear of judgement stops them from speaking up. Provide them with bespoke CPD as they often don’t feel catered for in the whole school or department foci.

Michael writes: Put the teachers and staff within the department first.  Look after there needs and they will look after the students.

Tom writes: I wish I had the confidence to question every ‘dictat’ that comes down from above (just think it over, not actually question the sender..), and to consider if what we were being asked to do fitted with my vision of teaching and learning. If not, to go and have a conversation with the originator (armed with done evidence) to negotiate.

Andrew writes: I wish I had known accepting you made a mistake is not a sign of weakness (although it feels like it) – apologise and make it right.

Lots of god advice there. We hope you found it helpful. If you have any questions please get in touch via twitter @HodSciSci

CogSciSci Book review: Greg Ashman’s The Power of Explicit Teaching and Direct Instruction

A book review by Matt Ben David a science teacher from London.

Greg Ashman’s The Power of Explicit Teaching and Direct Instruction is a 134-page, no-holds-barred, whistle-stop tour of, well, explicit teaching and direct instruction. The book starts by addressing both the importance of, and the main objections to a knowledge-rich curriculum before moving into the difference between Direct Instruction (big D, big I), direct instruction (little d, little i), and explicit teaching. It then applies the latter to education processes, differentiation, and critical thinking, before wrapping it up with a foray into research-based strategies to support explicit teaching, the impact of prior knowledge, the purpose of exams, and finally some advice on how to implement it all when you know you’re going to get push-back. All in all, a solid introduction to explicit teaching that I would happily recommend to any teacher.

Book Structure

Ashman prefaces ‘The Power’ with a short introduction to his “teaching journey”. His story, I think, is a familiar one – encouraged to try discovery/inquiry/enquiry learning and finding that it just doesn’t work the way we perhaps want it to. Reading this as a teacher who very much made a similar journey, I spent a lot of the short preface nodding away in agreement.

The “meat” of the book is broken down into seven chapters, each one starting with a few short bullet points outlining the key aspects that Ashman intends to address in the succeeding pages, and ending with the extensive works referenced (for real, this book is fantastically referenced – everything Ashman argues, he backs up). The chapters themselves do have slightly vague titles that spark a certain level of curiosity, even if I’m not 100% sure what it is I’m curious about – “Halfway up a ladder”? The giant shrugs”? On the first read, this isn’t a problem – I simply read the book cover-to-cover – but in terms of referencing back, or recommending particular sections to colleagues, it is a little tricky remembering which of the snappily-named chapters a particular point was in. Thankfully, there is a solid index which happily alleviates this problem!


The first chapter, On the Shoulders of Giants, discusses why we actually have to teach content, what we need to teach, and the baggage that goes with those decisions. Ashman outlines the importance of a knowledge-rich curriculum, builds up the arguments against such a thing, and then succinctly knocks them down. From there Ashman moves on, diving into a description of Project Follow Through. Ashman’s description is brief but clear, outlining its purpose and some of the more relevant results, as well as highlighting some of the criticisms of it. He then does the same for Direct Instruction, and so on and so forth. This pattern of criticism followed by a thorough dismantling of said criticism is a common theme in ‘The Power’, used not only when discussing Project Follow Through, and DI, but also every other aspect approached in the book – treating students as novices vs as experts, differentiation, critical thinking, and using student prior knowledge. As readers and teachers, we generally want to know what problems we might face when it comes to implementing research – often that which works well in a clinical environment loses some efficacy when attempted in the entropic world of the year 9 classroom. By displaying issues upfront before countering them, Ashman portrays a balanced and practical view of both the research and of the arguments he is making.

This book is not simply a research review – throughout it, Ashman supplements the research findings with arguments as to exactly why these findings are useful to us as teachers, weaving in elements of how his own teaching has benefited from said research. There is a lot of “I” – “I have a routine”, “I now understand” – that almost brings the research into the classroom for you. This is not an author saying “the research says X, you should do X” and yet is afraid to try it for themselves, or perhaps has no actual experience of its implementation in the classroom. This is a teacher saying “this research said X might solve the problems I was having, and I tried it and it does, if you’re having the same problems I had, you should try it too”.

I will say that Ashman’s tone throughout is incredibly no-nonsense. I get the distinct feeling he does not suffer fools gladly and will not tolerate bonkers recommendations for teaching. For me, this makes the book entertaining as well as enlightening – there were a few times I stopped reading and just thought “damn, that’s one way of putting it” – but I can imagine there will be some people who dislike this. This is not really a criticism though, because I’m sure there are many people who dislike my own tone as far too conversational!

Is The Power of Explicit Teaching and Direct Instruction worth getting?


All in all, The Power of Explicit Teaching and Direct Instruction is a good summary of “the research” and how it works in an actual classroom. If you’re new to the world of explicit teaching, it’s a safe starting place. If you’re already well-versed with all things direct and explicit, there might be an element of teaching you to suck eggs, but it’s certainly not an arduous reacquainting with that which you already know.

Further Reading

If you’re interested in the research side of things, may I recommend these two compilations: The Science of Learning by Edward Watson and Bradely Busch, and How Learning Happens by Carl Hendrick and Paul A. Kirschner. If you’re more interested in what explicit teaching and direct instruction looks like from a classroom or teacher’s perspective, I would recommend The ResearchED Guide to Explicit and Direct Instruction edited by Adam Boxer (series editor: Tom Bennett), which features, among chapters by a number of great people, a chapter by Greg Ashman.

Notable Lines

As I mentioned above, Ashman’s tone is amazing, and I wanted to pick out a few of my favourite lines. They aren’t necessarily the most informative, they’re just the ones that made me, when I first read the book, stop and reflect for a moment:

  • “ All teaching is, by definition child-centred” – p22
  • “Throwing novice maths students into complex and challenging problems with the intention of making them more resilient is perhaps a flawed idea” – p55
  • “Perhaps explicit teaching is dangerous magic […] Like a knife that may be used to chop onions or to stab another person, explicit teaching has no moral weight in its own right – it is just a tool that may be used for good or evil.” – p103
  • “Those who seek to abolish exams often do so on the basis that they should be replaced with a more humane system that recognises the sum of a student’s achievements rather than their performance on a single day. Yet exams exist for a reason.” -p120
  • When a surgeon conducts an operation, they must follow agreed protocols and there are fellow trained professionals in the operating theatre alongside the surgeon. When a teacher closes the classroom door, they are usually on their own and can do pretty much what they like” – p131

CogSciSci Book review: How We Learn: The New Science of Education and the Brain by Stanislas Dehaene

A book review by Dom Shibli – Senior Lecturer in Secondary Science at the University of Hertfordshire

This is a book I read a few months ago. But instead of being returned to the bookshelf for me to look at and reminisce, it is now inundated with Post it notes and used to inform planning of my course for next year. I want to give you a taster as to why you should read this book because I think the valuable time you will put into reading it will be worth it.

In starting my book review I want to start at the end. In the final paragraph of the book Dehaene writes:

‘Just as medicine is based on biology, the field of education must be grounded in a systematic and rigorous research ecosystem that brings together teachers, patients, and researchers, in a ceaseless search for more effective, evidence-based learning strategies.’

I am not an expert in the field of neuroscience and it is hard for me to be critical about the work done in Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) to make inferences about how the mind works. But Dehaene doesn’t just argue that the brain is a complicated computer and from reading the book I do get a sense of his understanding of the beautiful complexity of being a human.

Dehaene divides the book into 3 sections. He defines learning, uses case studies and data from MRI studies to then explain how the mind works before identifying ‘The Four Pillars of Learning’. He interweaves the narrative with tales from the human struggle to develop Artificial Intelligence (AI) which I think is to demonstrate how wonderfully complex the human mind is. Having demonstrated how he thinks the mind works he uses this information to introduce ‘The Four Pillars of Learning’

  1. Attention
  2. Active Engagement
  3. Error Feedback
  4. Consolidation

He suggests that ‘each of them plays an essential role in the stability of our mental constructions’. For those of you who are interested in learning  I doubt these would be controversial choices as ‘Pillars of Learning’ but how Dehaene elucidates them makes them essential for every teacher to know. Especially because if one of these is weak or absent then the learning process falls down. So an effective teacher is one who understands how these work and deploys them in their classroom.

Attention – Teachers need to teach students how to pay attention. This is because attention is a limited resource and if a student fails to pay attention they might be completely oblivious to their teacher’s message. So attention is an essential ingredient to successful learning and a good teacher is able to direct attention like a conductor standing in front of an orchestra.

A lovely example of how paying attention and social learning can have an unwelcome influence on the learning process is an experiment where babies watched adults press a button with their head. They did this because their hands were tied up. In observing this when the babies did the experiment they pressed the button with their hands. In a second experiment the babies observed an adult press the button with their head but this time there hands were not tied up. The babies saw this and also pushed the button with their heads. We can absorb information whether we know it to be truthful or not thus maintaining long disproven theories. Since we have the capacity to be unthinking copycats teachers should try and direct attention and not leave the learning process to chance.

Active Engagement – This does not mean moving around the room gathering information. Active engagement takes place in the mind and not the feet! Dehaene quotes another titan in the field of psychology, Richard Mayer, who writes that best success is achieved with ‘methods of instruction that involve cognitive activity rather than behavioural activity’. Daniel Willingham has written about how humans find thinking effortful. A teacher will be successful if they can stimulate curiosity which encourages thinking. If this thinking is translated into success then the effort of the student is rewarded. This is why I aim to make learning visible to the students in the classroom. I especially found that lower attaining students liked knowing that they had got something right and aimed to do this in every lesson so that I could try and short circuit their negative feelings towards my subject which they thought they couldn’t do.

Error Feedback – Dehaene states that a teacher should tell the truth and not judge when giving feedback. But my favourite line from this chapter is that ‘feedback reduces learner uncertainty’. So ask yourself about how you respond to students in the classroom and in their exercise books. If what you do doesn’t reduce uncertainty do it differently. He also suggests that memory is not about looking to the past but about its role in sending data to the future so we can access it later. When you can’t access it then you know that is has not been learned.

Consolidation –  If you can gain fluency then the effort required in the mind is reduced and so frees up mental resources to focus in other areas. By giving students the opportunity to practice something repeatedly there is a shift from slow, conscious and effortful processing to fast, unconscious and automatic responses.

The final chapter sums up how the field of neuroscience and education should exist together. Throughout the book Dehaene demonstrates that our brains are all the same and as teachers you should judge a child’s level and teach them accordingly. Notice students’ attention in your classroom, keep them curious and engaged (develop a sensible curriculum), make the school day enjoyable, design activities that support cognitive activity, accept mistakes, correct them and practice regularly. His final thought is about the importance of sleep and suggests that it might strengthen memory. Although it is not an excuse for falling asleep in the classroom.

I have left lots out of the book which I hope might encourage you to read it. This is not a Greatest Hits with all the well known tracks referenced. I picked out aspects of the book I liked, so read it and make your own greatest hits.

Thanks Dom for reviewing the book. If anyone else reads a book that they think other CogSci teachers might enjoy please get in touch. We would love you to review it for us!

HoDSciSci March Roundtable: Teacher Assessed Grades

March brings us to the elephant in the room of most HoDs minds: Teacher Assessed Grades. As it stands there is still woefully little specificity and guidance from The Powers That Be. We thought the best we could do is get a few HoDs to share their thoughts and plans for Teacher Assessed Grades (TAGs). All plans are subject to change and we are eternally grateful for our HoDs for taking the time to share, given how incredibly busy we all are. If you have any questions or feedback please get in touch via twitter @HodSciSci, using the hashtags #HoDSciSci #TeacherAssessedGrades.

Adam Robbins

How are you planning on doing your teacher assessment (and can you give a brief rationale)?

We have a decent paper 1 mock set from November. We are thinking of using adapted papers for a paper 1+2 assessment around end of May (changing the numbers to prevent memorising markschemes).

Are you expecting similar outcomes to 2020?

I think there will be more inflation than last time across the system. But we have historic data and a decent starting point, so we can project relatively accurately what our improvement over the rest of the year would have been and arrive a decent grade distribution. We will also compare between other schools in the MAT

What are your biggest concerns?

Alevel performance is my biggest concern. So many variables at this stage and small sample size means aggregation and trends over the years are pointless.

People misunderstanding how assessment works and what GCSE grades actually are will also drive inequality between schools. There is a huge CPD need to stop teachers looking at little Billies powerstation essay, awarding it a grade 6 and then giving them a grade 6 overall!

I’m basically more worried about other schools than my own as I don’t want to disadvantage our students due to others generosity/incompetence.

What do you see the role of the HoD in this process?

Holding SLT at bay. They may want to solve all the problems and design a complex system that creates a mirage of certainty. HoDs job is to look at the practical implications and ask two questions;

1. Can this be done? 

2. Will it tell me anything I don’t know?

Adapting the initial plan to make it work for science will be key. Managing up will be a key skill.

Do you have a sixth form? If so does this impact your decision making?

We have to think very carefully about the awarding of a grade 6, which is our entry requirement. In some ways this helps us award our TAGs. We can look at the students in the area of grade 6 an ask ‘would they be able to access Alevel if they wanted to?’

Have you received any parental or student pressure yet? 

No. Although some Year 13 students are very keen to know where they stand.

How far will school’s P8 measure factor into grades awarded?

We know our trajectory of improvement as a department and the early data suggests we would be able to secure a positive progress 8 from this cohort. Although this is not a true P8, due to the algorithm being from 2019, it will give us a final check at the overall awarded grades to see if they are around the right level.

What things constitute ‘strong’ evidence in your opinion?

Any data from our November mocks. Other assessments that are of a decent length (45 marks +) and cover a range of the course. I wouldn’t view ‘topic tests’ as robust enough.

How will you protect your staff from ‘revenge’ harassment from students unhappy with their grade?

The process needs to involve teachers, but the decisions need to be mine. With a transparent logic I feel we can deal with any unhappy students who wish to raise concerns over their grade.

Will your Head of Centre be able to sign off that students have studied enough science to progress? How much is enough?

I am expecting to cover the syllabus for year 11. I see the syllabus as a right for each student so we will prioritise that over ‘booster’ sessions.

Liam Fishwick

How are you planning on doing your teacher assessment (and can you give a brief rationale)?

We have solid paper 1 set from November as we completed mocks before we broke up. We’re planning to do another assessment covering content taught from exam papers adapted to reduce mark scheme memorisation effect as much as possible. These will be sat in a window at the end of April early May. We’ll also do some more questions on bits we couldn’t fit into the main window in the classroom.

Are you expecting similar outcomes to 2020?

Likely that nationally there will be some inflation, but given we have good trajectory data from previous years and mocks I think we should be relatively similar to 2019/2020. We can also compare within the MAT to allow for calibration on what we’ve achieved before. Useful to help provide as many tying points as possible. A level is a bigger issue. Small classes, very different cohorts and not the same ability to tie across MAT means this is a much more difficult task. There is also an even greater effect on student futures for the A level cohort as well.

What are your biggest concerns?

National inflation and lack of agreed standard for grades could lead to larger gaps nationally and potential disadvantaging own students because other schools are less rigorous.

What do you see the role of the HoD in this process?

To provide the link between the SLT desires for the whole school and what will be right for students and science. Engaging in discussion with SLT to make sure that views on curriculum are heard and the well-being of staff and students is kept at front of thoughts. Cannot be burning everyone out by assessing constantly and having an overly complex system that won’t provide any better information than something less complex.

Do you have a sixth form?

Yes we do.

If so does this impact your decision making?

No, I am trying to maintain integrity in production of the grades such that students that should progress can do and that we are not disadvantaging students in this system.

Have you received any parental or student pressure yet? 

No. Only questions but the sort of sensible questions we would expect. The SLT are handling any queries that could become pressure so have not had anything directly, nor would I expect any pressure for specific grades from my cohort.

How far will school’s P8 measure factor into grades awarded?

Early data was suggesting (using previous coefficients of course) that we would be on track to being positive overall. I expect that we will make good use of comparisons with our past performance and the current cohorts at similar places to help look at what our overall outcomes would likely have been.

What things constitute ‘strong’ evidence in your opinion?

Previously unseen assessments that have been completed in person in school. Nothing remote at all, and the strongest we would have currently is from November mocks. All assessments that cover a large number of topics rather than just topic tests are considered strong enough in my opinion.

How will you protect your staff from ‘revenge’ harassment from students unhappy with their grade?

The process is being clearly laid out to students and there are many levels of internal QA. While teachers will contribute, final decisions on grades at subject level will be mine. Clearly communicating in advance through the whole school to how we will be arriving at these grades (initial statements for timescales and likely evidence have already been shared but at time of writing final guidance from boards is still not out).

Will your Head of Centre be able to sign off that students have studied enough science to progress? 

We will have covered essentially the entire syllabus for y11. There will be some trimming for assessment purposes but yes we expect that students have studied enough to progress.

David Gash

  1. How are you planning on doing your teacher assessment (and can you give a brief rationale)?

    I have asked my teaching staff to submit a teacher assessed grade during the week beginning 15th March to our internal tracking sheet. This is based on the staff’s knowledge of the pupils prior attainment in mocks and their attitudes to learning. This has provided a realistic starting point for our decision making process and will hopefully reduce the chance of highly anomalous data points. Our next step is to produce and administer 3 assessments during the half term after Easter. The scores for these will be totalled and then grades awarded based on the overall difficulty of the papers and the grading profile from our 2020 outcomes so that we do not deviate too much from what we would have been expected to achieve. Staff will then need to consider this evidence in line with their previous evidence to arrive at a best fit grade. Thankfully we made the decision to produce our own assessments nice and early so that we can press on with preparing our pupils. Waiting until Easter for information about exam materials was not ideal in my opinion.

  2. Are you expecting similar outcomes to 2020?

    The year group as a whole is not hugely dissimilar to the previous year group so we feel a similar set of outcomes is fair and reasonable. I would have normally expected to see a slight increase but the impact of COVID on the attendance of this cohort over the past 12 months cannot be totally ignored.
  3. What are your biggest concerns? I have two main concerns. Firstly, how will the late bloomers fare in this adapted approach to assessment? We always end up with some pupils really turning it on in their exams and surprising us all in the nicest of ways! Will they be able to shine in the same way given their prior attendance? Secondly, I want to ensure that all pupils get a realistic chance of progressing to their next destination. (There is a balancing act here in ensuring destinations are realistic for each individual.)
  1. What do you see the role of the HoD in this process?

    Very much quality assurance and the gatekeeper for grading decisions. Most of the staff involved were also involved in 2020 so to have the experience of that under their belt. As HoD I will need to be an unbiased (if there is such a thing) sounding board for their rationale behind their decision making process. 
  2. Do you have a sixth form? If so does this impact your decision making?

    We have a sixth form and we have many of our pupils who intend on staying on in September 2021. At this stage in Y11 we are pretty secure in our knowledge of who is capable of studying A-level and who is not so grading decisions will not be unduly influenced by their destinations for the most part. Those 1 or 2 borderline pupils should , in my opinion, be given the benefit of the doubt as long as there is sufficient evidence to support it. We as a school can support their transition to sixth form accordingly as long as our discussion with the sixth form team and teachers are honest and accurate.

  3. Have you received any parental or student pressure yet?

    Non so far! 🙂
  4. How far will school’s P8 measure factor into grades awarded?

    I work in an RI school whose P8 figure has never peaked above -0.45 so it would be foolish to start awarding grades that would contribute to a figure of +0.85 all of a sudden! We have an acceptable degree of tolerance produced by our own internal data systems which, we feel, allows us to show the improvements we are making as a school without providing false outcomes for pupils.
  5. What things constitute ‘strong’ evidence in your opinion?

    Exam-based data! This is how GCSE grades are determined so I feel this is the best data you can use to measure a pupils performance relative to their peers. The tricky part is designing an assessment tool that is both robust and reflects the intended assessment. Schools are being asked to do something in a matter of weeks that exam boards normally get a year or so to do. I am not critical of the exam boards here but this does put incredible pressure on middle leaders and teachers and will, unfortunately, affect the validity of the grading decisions we take. 
  1. How will you protect your staff from ‘revenge’ harassment from students unhappy with their grade?

    All grading decisions will be quality assured by me and my line manager (also a scientist). Any complaints will have to come through us.

  2. Will your Head of Centre be able to sign off that students have studied enough science to progress? How much is enough?

    Yes. Our pupils will have covered the entire GCSE Specifications during their time with us.

Richard Gale

  1. How are you planning on doing your teacher assessment (and can you give a brief rationale)?

Preset by our deputy academic, existing data (two major pieces done in lockdowns so questionable quality in the data. short GCSE’s/ A-levels covering this year’s content only for end of May assessments.

2. Are you expecting similar outcomes to 2020?

Actually higher, with the OFQUAL announcement form the webinar pupils will have access to the questions and answers which we could use. With the limited topics we can set (see above) relatively straightforward for pupils to have already seen all of the questions. Pupils will be given the grade they achieve in these exams. 

3. What are your biggest concerns?

See answer to point 2. Also that there are additional pressures on pupils and teachers. 

4. What do you see the role of the HoD in this process?

Take the pressure off staff and pupils as much as possible. 

5. Do you have a sixth form? If so does this impact your decision making?

Yes we have a sixth form. Last year we spoke a lot about progression. This year less so. My worry is more inflation. 

6. Have you received any parental or student pressure yet? 

Yes, we have already had requests for data we hold on pupils. 

7. How far will school’s P8 measure factor into grades awarded?

Little this year, hence my concern. 

8. What things constitute ‘strong’ evidence in your opinion?

Evidence from EOY and EOT tests, with an opportunity for pupils to exceed this with an assessment in the summer.

9. How will you protect your staff from ‘revenge’ harassment from students unhappy with their grade?

Any contact from pupils of parents is forwarded straight to the head and line manager. I intend to do my bit by stressing the limited role class teachers will play in the decision. Pupils have the opportunity though their performances. 

20. Will your Head of Centre be able to sign off that students have studied enough science to progress? How much is enough?

We have completed the course, successful guided home learning on teams. 

Victoria Judge

1.How are you planning on doing your teacher assessment (and can you give a brief rationale)?

We have a mock result from November which is our most robust evidence to date. The school also arranged a second mock exam period running 1st-15th March. To make the assessments more worthwhile, we ran them 8th-15th March so they would not have to be done remotely. Unfortunately, it does mean that students returning after lockdown were greeted almost immediately with assessments. I think the lack of face-to-face preparation and the long period of lockdown in the run-up to these mocks, will result in lower outcomes than the November assessments, but for some students, it is providing useful additional evidence. We are due to run another assessment period shortly after Easter which I think will yield more realistic results than the March one. All the papers we have used were ‘secure’ from the exam board, although with schools running mocks at all different times and in different ways, just how ‘secure’ these actually are, is questionable.

2. Are you expecting similar outcomes to 2020?

I am expecting a roughly similar spread of results within the department as a whole, but at qualification level, we will probably see some change. The 2020 cohort had one separate science class, whereas this year we only have combined science so I think that will affect the spread of our results. I think results nationally will see more inflation than last year, and I am interested to see how publically accessible exam board resources might feed into this.

3. What are your biggest concerns?

A general lack of consistency in methods for grading nationally, coupled with a lack of understanding of assessment. I fear that other schools may apply too much weighting to ungradeable coursework and the rigour of assessment will be lost in some schools, disadvantaging others who use more valid assessment inferences. Lack of secure assessment materials, even those that are supposed to be secure. 

4. What do you see the role of the HoD in this process?

To quality-assure the process of awarding grades and to ensure that there is strong evidence and rationale behind all the grades awarded in science. Also, to be the subject specialist in discussions with SLT around where the best evidence will come from, and what types of work can or cannot be “graded”.

5. Do you have a sixth form? If so does this impact your decision making?

We do, but we do not have Science courses running this year. 

6. Have you received any parental or student pressure yet? 

I have not received any pressure from students or parents, but I have been asked by many students what their Teacher Assessed Grade is going to be so that they can fill in Sixth Form applications. Every time I am asked, I have to explain that the most recent reported forecast is what they should use and this has caused some stress to students who are convinced that other schools are informing their students of the TAGs already!

7. How far will school’s P8 measure factor into grades awarded?

Our trajectory from historical data shows that we are improving our outcomes year on year, but I am not expecting our results to suddenly jump up this academic year. A comparison with previous P8 data will show if we are being reasonable with our Teacher Assessed Grades and that they are reflective of what we would have been expecting this year anyway. 

8. What things constitute ‘strong’ evidence in your opinion?

Data generated from exam papers, taken in exam conditions, covering a broad range of subject content. This is why we have used previously unseen assessments for your evidence so far. I don’t think end of topic tests are particularly robust and class work, I feel is useless in terms of awarding a grade. This is why I think the important part of a HoD’s role is to be the specialist in discussion with SLT. Other subjects may be able to use essay-based questions for example. It is important that science departments and senior leaders share an understanding of how GCSE grades are awarded and what this means for finding the strongest evidence within our subject area. 

9. How will you protect your staff from ‘revenge’ harassment from students unhappy with their grade?

Any complaints will need to come to me and to my line manager. I would not expect any teaching staff to have to deal with complaints as the final decision on grading rest with me and my line manager.

10. Will your Head of Centre be able to sign off that students have studied enough science to progress? How much is enough?

Yes. We have a number of students who wish to go on to study further Science, and it is important that those students are well-prepared from their GCSE study. It is also important that all other students have had the same opportunity for learning the content in the specifications.