Adventum: our new Junior School curriculum

Claire Boyd, Head of Junior School, reflects on the process that brought about the inception of Adventum, the new Junior School philosophy-led academic curriculum.

Education, like so many other areas of life, is not immune to the comings and goings of fashions and trends. What is en vogue one decade can be reviled the next. When qualifying to teach back in the early 00s, my evangelical tutors waxed lyrical about ‘The Literacy and Numeracy Hour’, the golden bullet, as they saw it, for guaranteeing educational success in classrooms across the country.

When it was launched in 1998, this highly prescriptive minute-by-minute approach to teaching daily Maths and English lessons, provoked the then-Education Secretary, David Blunkett, to promise to resign in 2002 unless “80% of 11-year olds met the expected level in their end of Key Stage 2 SATs tests”[1]. Alas, by 2010, when I was mentoring new teachers through their training myself, the tide had turned – rather unceremoniously – against the Literacy and Numeracy Hour, and nothing as rigid and straightened as that has earned a trainee teacher their stripes since.

Just a few moments scrolling through the most popular Edu Twitter accounts today will lead you to believe frequent retrieval practice, regular low stake testing and knowledge organisers hold the key to success that Blunkett’s beloved Literacy Hour did, twenty years ago.

When it comes to deciding how to craft a curriculum imbued with the integrity, longevity and depth to withstand the test of time (or least see a good few cohorts reap its benefits), you need something that will not only deliver exceptional educational outcomes but something which will also stand resolute as other trends come and go around it. Between September 2019 and January 2021, this preoccupation loomed large over my team and I, as we sought to overhaul our curriculum and breathe new life into what we teach and how we teach, as well as, most importantly, consider why we teach what we teach.

Launched to our pupils at the start of the Spring Term 2021, Adventum (named in tribute to the spirit of adventure that rests at the heart of the Junior School) is the net result of this process in action. Over the course of four terms, we went from asking ourselves where the value lay in what we had been teaching and which aspects were delivering excellent outcomes to what we wanted for the next generation of our Junior School learners.

Wimbledon High – Reception Class

Our curriculum building process began at the end, rather than the beginning, by considering what we wanted the legacy of our curriculum to be. What did we want our pupils to take away with them when they finished seven years engaged in our bespoke curriculum and its related lessons? By no means an easy question to answer, we worked through a range of iterations of legacy statements before asserting that we will aim to instill our learners with a love of wisdom, integrity of thought and the social awareness to act with compassion, confidence and agency; leaving our girls filled with a desire to grapple with and overcome the challenges presented by the world in which they are growing up.

With this in place, we then felt a close and immediate connection with the potential a philosophy-led curriculum could provide. Exploring existing research on philosophy driven curricula drove us to agree emphatically with the Lipman that “every subject seems easier to learn when its teaching is infused with the open, critical spirit and logical characteristic of philosophy.”[2] It is only by fostering a curriculum that elevates thinking rather than the transmission of knowledge will we truly equip the young minds in our care, with the skills and abilities to use the knowledge and skills they acquire to meaningfully contribute to shaping the world around them.

When considered alongside both the capabilities and abilities of our eager learners, Adventum began to take shape around a foundation of provocative thinking, intellectual disruption, critical questioning and increasing levels of self-knowledge. Rather than being tied to closely to a means of delivering content over time in an efficient and sufficient manner, we worked hard to look for ways that the discovery of knowledge and skills could be fused together to help strengthen connections and schema building whilst responding naturally to the innate predisposition all children have for asking questions, for challenging and seeking out possibility. We looked for a practical way to take the structure and progression of the National Curriculum – in which we recognise inherent value – and align it closely with a programme which gives space and breadth for the thinking, contemplation and sequence of discoveries that relate directly to reasoning; there is indeed “no point in teaching children logic if one does not at the same time teach them to think logically.”[3]

So, half a term into the implementation of Adventum, what are our girls experiencing? Each sequence of lessons is rooted in a philosophical question that provides a focus to the learning for that term. The questions posed simply yet designed to offer perplexity of thought when engagement levels are high.

Adventum begins by introducing first providing an introduction to meta-physics (understanding ourselves), moving through to develop an understanding of aesthetics (appreciating the natural world) and culminating with the complexities of ethics (wrangling with the moral dilemmas of life).  This term sees Reception wonder what makes a good character, Year 3 ask if colour plays a part in our identity, Year 6 consider who decides the status quo around us. With the humanities, science, art and music interwoven into the exploration of these questions, high quality and ambitious texts provide the important context required to interrogate the big questions being asked of our bright minds. Where the aim of philosophy writ large is to cultivate excellence in thinking, Adventum has been crafted to spur our girls on to examine what it is to think historically, musically and scientifically.

Whilst we do not expect Adventum to exist in a pedagogical vacuum, unchallenged and unaffected by the progress in education and child development, it is hard not to feel that the providence found in the quest of thinking that has gone before sets us in good stead. So here is to the adventure of asking big questions of big minds and inspiring big thinking from Early Years onwards.


[1] p.1 After the Literacy Hour: May the Best Plan Win, Centre for Policy Studies, 2004

[2] Philosophy Goes to School, M. Lipman, Temple, 1988, p.4

[3] Ibid p. 6

Slow Learning

With ‘slowing down’ a key part of our wellbeing strategy of ‘Strong Body, Strong Mind’, our Director of Studies, Suzy Pett, looks at why slowing down is fundamental from an educational perspective, too.

So often, the watch words of classroom teaching are ‘pace’ and ‘rapid progress’. I’m used to scribbling down these words during lesson observations, with a reassuring sense that I’m seeing a good thing going on. And I am. We want lessons to be buzzy, with students energised and on their toes. We want them to make quick gains in their studies. But is it more complex than this?

The more I think about it, the more I am convinced that ‘slow and deep’ should be the mantra for great teaching and learning. I’m not suggesting that lessons become sluggish. But, we need to jettison the idea that progress can happen before our very eyes. And, with our young people acclimatised to instant online communication, now more than ever do we need our classrooms – virtual or otherwise – to be havens of slow learning and deep thinking. Not only is this a respite from an increasingly frenetic world, but it is how students develop the neural networks to think in a deeply critical and divergent way.

What I love most in in the classroom is witnessing the unfurling of students’ ideas. This takes time. I’m not looking for instant answers or quick, superficial responses. I cherish the eeking out of a thought from an uncertain learner, or hearing a daring student unpack the bold logic of her response. Unlike social media, the classroom is not awash with snappy soundbites, but with slow, deep questioning and considered voices. As much as pacey Q&A might get the learning off to a roaring start, lessons should also be filled with gaps, pauses and waiting. You wouldn’t rush the punch line of a joke. So, it’s the silence after posing a question that has the impact: it gifts the students the time for deep thinking. In lessons, we don’t rattle along the tracks; we stop, turn around and change direction. We revisit ideas, and circle back on what needs further exploration. This journey might feel slower, but learning isn’t like a train timetable.

But what does cognitive science say about slow learning? Studies show that learning deeply means learning slowly.[1] I’m as guilty as anyone at feeling buoyed by a gleaming set of student essays about the poem I have just taught. But don’t be duped by this fools’ gold. Immediate mastery is an illusion. Quick-gained success only has short term benefits. Instead, learning that lasts is slow in the making. It requires spaced practice, regularly returning to that learning at later intervals. The struggle of recalling half-forgotten ideas from the murky depths of our brains helps them stick in the long-term memory. But this happens over time and there is no shortcut.

Interleaving topics also helps with this slow learning. Rather than ploughing through a block of learning, carefully weaving in different but complimentary topics does wonders. The cognitive dissonance created as students toggle between them increases their conceptual understanding. By learning these topics aside each other, students’ brains are working out the nuances of their similarities and differences. The friction – or ease – with which they make connections allows learners to arrange their thoughts into a more complex and broad network of ideas. It will feel slower and harder, but it will be worth it for the more flexible connections of knowledge in the brain. It is with flexible neural networks that our students can problem solve, be creative, and make cognitive leaps as new ideas come together for a ‘eureka’ moment.

Amidst the complexity of the 21st century, these skills are at a premium. With a surfeit of information bombarding us and our students from digital pop-ups, social media and 24 hour news, the danger is we seek the quick, easy-to-process sources.[2] This is a cognitive and cultural short circuit, with far reaching consequences for the individual’s capacity for critical thinking. With the continual rapid intake of ideas, the fear is a rudderlessness of thought for our young people.[3]

And yet, peek inside our classrooms, and you will see the antidote to this in our deep, slow teaching and learning.

[1] David Epstein, Range (London: Macmillan, 2019), p. 97.

[2] Maryanne Wolf, Reader, Come Home (New York: HarperCollins, 2018), p. 12.

[3] Ibid. p. 63.

Thinking about our Bread and Butter

Suzy Pett, Director of Studies, explores best practice for assessment and feedback.

Whilst cognitive scientists are increasingly enhancing our understanding of how students learn, to all intents and purposes, learning is still invisible. Sometimes we glimpse signs of learning: those eureka moments when a piece of knowledge suddenly clicks into place. But, to see the learning itself is a chimera.

Because of this, assessment and feedback is our bread and butter as teachers. We assess continually in a variety of ways to work out what has and hasn’t been learnt. It allows us to explore a student’s schema (network of knowledge), to put right misconceptions, to encourage individuals and to adapt our own teaching accordingly. In this way, we can make a myriad of adjustments to the way we teach to enhance student progress. Plus, with the help of cognitive science, we’re getting better at knowing what does and does not work in terms of assessment and feedback.

But, the idea of ‘assessment’ can strike fear into students. And, do students fully take on board our feedback, anyway? During our staff study day at the end of last half term, a group of us discussed our ethos surrounding assessment and feedback. It was important to refine our collective understanding of both these fundamental areas of pedagogy. With linear A Levels and GCSEs, we need to shine a light on our assessment methods, making the most of spaced and interleaved practice. But, we spoke, too, of students’ misunderstanding of the purpose of assessment and feedback.

We boiled down our ideas to a powerful message, drawing from our own experiences and in light of reading articles by David Didau, Tom Sherrington, Hattie, Clarke and the Education Endowment Foundation.

We want students to realise that:

  1. Assessment doesn’t just measure learning, it helps learning and it happens all the time in the classroom.
  2. Feedback is not a judgement on their ability but a spring-board towards further personal and academic development. Everything students do is part of a wider personal and academic endeavor.
  3. Feedback is an opportunity for reflection on, and ownership of, their learning.

Let’s dig a little deeper into these three ideas.

Assessment doesn’t just measure learning, it helps learning and it happens all the time in the classroom:

Assessment and testing turbo boost learning: They don’t just measure it, they propel it! The process of recalling knowledge strengthens long term memory; the process of collating ideas and organising them on the page helps consolidate schema. We want students to know this!

Lightness of touch, good humour and warmth: Frequent low stakes testing or quizzing (especially if spaced and/or interleaved) is fundamental in encoding ideas in the long term memory. And, it is an opportunity to quickly put right any misperceptions forming in the student’s mind. Regular testing, should, therefore not feel like a burden, but should be an opportunity to learn.   As teachers, we need to help set the tone for this. With a lightness of touch, good humour and warmth, these low stakes tests can propel more rapid learning and can build student confidence. Our attitude must reflect this spirit.

Toggle between knowledge: We need to be aware, too, of the illusion of understanding. Pupils can perform well in a low stakes quiz, especially if the quiz reflects a unit of blocked learning. However, students might not necessarily be able to transfer the learning to another context, or be able to recall it in an exam which requires them to toggle between different sorts of knowledge (such as in the linear GCSE and A Levels).  A longer, more formal, interleaved assessment or test is still important to gauge how students can pull together ideas from across their different schema. However, a refrain we often hear from students is “Is this an assessed piece of work?”, with rising levels of panic creeping into the voice. So, again, teachers need to position this sort of testing accordingly – as a chance for students to learn, rather than the teacher to judge.

Assessment happens continually, anyway: students need to realise this. As teachers, we’re not judging a one-off performance. Assessment is an ongoing process to help individuals make progress:

  • It’s the checking of prior knowledge at the start of the lesson (helping students orientate new understanding within their existing schema)
  • It’s the Q&A during lessons
  • It’s the one-to-one discussions whilst the teacher is circulating when the class are working
  • It’s the quick quiz during class time
  • It’s the careful observation of student talk/work during activities
  • It’s the mini plenary to judge how well new ideas have been assimilated
  • It’s the exit card for teachers to work out how each individual has grasped the learning.
  • NB: the verbal feedback in lessons and the one-to-one discussions are arguably the most powerful forms of feedback, more so than the written feedback on written work. Students should not underestimate this sort of feedback.

Feedback is not a judgement on student ability but a spring-board towards further personal and academic development. Everything they do is part of a wider personal/academic endeavor.

Low threat to self-esteem: One of the most striking discussions we had during staff study day was around the profound impact of feedback to bolster or demoralise students. An entire page of feedback on an essay may be well intentioned, but it can in fact deflate a student. Feedback is received best when there is a low rather than high threat to self-esteem, and we should be mindful of this. Instead, choosing to focus feedback on one particular skill, or on one particular element of the essay/test can be more impactful for the student, who can use it as a springboard for development.

Get off the hamster wheel! Learning is more that digesting ‘testable chunks’: Fortunately, WHS already has grit and resilience at the heart of the learning experience: growth mind set is firmly established amongst staff and students. However, we still need to beware to avoid assessment and feedback making students feel like they are on a hamster wheel. Instead of narrowing horizons to the next test or the next piece of feedback, it’s important for students to realise why this learning is important, beyond the looming GCSE and A Level. In giving feedback and when quizzing/assessing, we need to be sure that we keep our eyes on the whole and share this with students. Giving reminders of the wider canvas of the learning are key i.e. why is this knowledge/skill/technique important to our subject. Let’s even think beyond our subject divides and tap into our school’s STEAM ethos. We must keep at the forefront that what we are doing is unlocking the expansive, fascinating potential of our subject, not simply breaking it down into testable chunks. Feedback should remind students of this; it’s a chance to nurture their love of the subject.

Ditch the satnav: In contrast, David Didau has coined the term ‘satnav marking’, to indicate the sort of reductive mark that simply tells students the next steps. Whilst arguably useful in the immediate term, it makes a subject operate in a ‘paint by numbers’ capacity. We should avoid this sort of marking, instead encouraging students to think in nuanced ways about their work and their subject and their passions.

Feedback is an opportunity for reflection on, and ownership of, student learning.

If feedback is seen and not heard, it is pointless: Fundamental to feedback is students’ reflection on it. During out staff study day, we spoke about our sense that pupils often felt like they were doing the assessment/homework/test for us as teachers, rather than for themselves. By placing metacognition at the heart of the feedback process, we can shift this student misperception so that students take ownership of assessment and feedback as a personal learning process. Teachers need to carve out time and prioritise students taking on board the comments. Strategies were discussed, such as ‘DIRT’ time; students rewriting sections of their work; students responding to questions posed in the marking; students pre-reflecting on their work to allow teachers to respond to this in feedback; student tracking their marks/feedback using OneNote.

Give feedback on ‘best’ work: An idea that struck a chord was that students need to take ownership of their learning by the effort they invest in their work. There is little point in giving feedback on work students know isn’t their best…the feedback will just confirm what they already know. We need to give feedback on students’ ‘best’ work: i.e. work which is a result of high effort, in which students are invested and which shows ‘liminal learning’ (work which is pushing at the bounds of their capabilities). If this is the criterion for marking work, then students will want to see the feedback.

Self/peer assessment is not because we’re lazy! We also discussed the use of peer and self-assessment in allowing students to take ownership of their work. Whilst students often do not like this method of assessment, preferring the safety net of the teacher marking their work, we know that it develops metacognition.  This is not a technique for lazy teachers not wanting to mark (as we suspect some students think!) but it is a vital tool for student self-reflection.

It’s about a whole school culture. Most important of all is for this mind set of ownership and self-reflection to be reinforced regularly across the school: it’s about a culture which comes from teachers, tutors, form times, PSHE peer counsellors, subject leaders.


From Socrates to Stormzy: introducing the Experientia Scholarship

What is art?

Mr James Porter, Specialist English teacher and Experientia Scholarship lead, reflects on the first half-term of a radical bespoke curriculum project that aims to introduce the Upper Junior School girls to the concept of critical thinking and the art of Socratic discussion.

What does academic achievement look like in 2020?

 Fionnuala Kennedy, Head, began this academic term with an address to staff in which she spoke of a ‘new epoch’ in education. In this time of truly unprecedented crisis the core business of schools has very much been thrust into the public spotlight, and, with circumstances necessitating a ‘back to basics’ approach, there is now a very prescient need to look closely at the fundamentals of teaching and learning and to ask – how can we do the basics better?

Nationally and globally, the lives of children have been turned upside down and the education community has been rocked by profound and severe crises, the implications of which many observers hold will be felt for years, if not indefinitely. Take this summer’s public exam fiasco and the ongoing uncertainty around this type of assessment as just one example of the domino-like impact that the COVID crisis will continue to have on the core components of the British education system. Naturally, this is leading to a renewed impetus in the search for change.

Above: The Media

The need to explicitly address the social implications of the crisis in school planning is widely acknowledged. It is this principle that Barry Carpenter makes central in his proposal for a ‘recovery curriculum’ model for the Autumn term, which addresses the holistic development of pupils in response to a deficit that is perceived as having emerged during the period of school closure. [1]

However, there are those who propose that times of profound uncertainty be met with more divergent thinking that is far broader and deeper in scope:

In more turbulent times, a radical vision of education may emerge from cultural trauma, as it did in Reggio Emilia in northern Italy at the conclusion of the Second World War. A whole society pulled together in revulsion at the ease with which they had embraced, or tolerated, fascism, and vowed to raise young people who would not make the same mistakes. [2]

Further, a growing discourse in British education reflecting a broad spectrum of society has seen this crisis as the catalyst for their calls to end what they perceive to be an inherently problematic public assessment regime, the most eloquent of these coming from Michael Rosen in a letter to Gavin Williamson published in The Guardian. [3] Their calls to replace GCSEs with alternative models cite the established practices at Bedales School who introduced “richer, more expansive courses” that “encourage creativity, autonomy, and enjoyment of learning for its own sake” as a ground-breaking example of a successful alternative. [4]

While some have drawn equivalents, I am not comparing the gravity of our present situation with the fall of Fascism at the end of the Second World War (this weekend’s election result not withstanding). However, at no time since the Second World War has it been more important that we support the holistic development and emotional intelligence of our pupils through considerate planning that addresses emerging needs while focusing on the development of skills and maintaining disciplined academic rigour.

What is the Experientia Scholarship?

Inspired by dramatic developments in education and tasked with developing a radical new curriculum programme in the Upper Junior School, I wanted to address the challenges of 2020 and beyond by creating a programme focused on rigorous academic pursuit and the development of higher-order thinking.  The programme also needed to be responsive to the needs of pupils through engaging, thoughtful, and sensitive planning that makes the habits of effective discussion and learning explicit, building on the psychological development model proposed by Abraham Maslow in 1943:

Above: Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Since September, the girls in the Upper Junior School have been immersed in a bespoke curriculum programme which considers the contentious issues that affect our daily lives and introduces pupils to the concept of critical thinking and the art of Socratic discussion.

Above: The Experientia Scholarship

The Experientia Scholarship, which forms part of the weekly timetable for all girls in Years 3-6, exposes pupils to a range of learning experiences which challenge their view of the world. Comprising of a range of short courses, pupils explore elements of both classical ‘enlightenment’ and progressive ‘modernist’ units of study devised to grow cultural capital, cultivate divergent thinking and enhance preparation for success in a globalised and digital world.[5] 

Underpinning this are three pillars which guide the ongoing development of the programme:

  • Academia: A community concerned with the pursuit of knowledge, always seeking to find truth and assessing all available evidence to make logical conclusions that are not based on opinions or emotions;
  • Fraternity: A feeling of friendship and support within our community, being kind and supportive, understanding that we never discount the person; we challenge their conclusions based on our understanding of the evidence;
  • Culture: We learn about, respect and show tolerance towards all no matter their background, geography or beliefs. Understanding that high culture is not limited to high art, we embrace eclectic tastes across a broad range of disciplines, from Schubert to Stormzy.

    Through weekly Socratic discussions based on a thought-provoking reading, pupils engage with a cycle of themes that introduce them to a range of critical topics.

Experientia Scholarship – Autumn Term
Year 3 Has technology made life easier? Can machines replace human beings?
Year 4 Does Hollywood need to change? Who makes the news?
Year 5 What is art? Is art inclusive?
Year 6 How much influence does the media have?

The pupils reflect on their position throughout the discussion cycle and are encouraged to conduct their own research into the topics of discussion and to set their own questions for future discussions.

In the lessons, the teacher prepares discussion-based activities that ask a series of open-ended questions specifically targeting the different ways of thinking about a topic. Arguments are dismantled into their constituent parts which can then be evaluated, and the implications considered.

Above: Questioning to Promote Higher Order Thinking Skills

The benefits of the Socratic approach to learning have long been espoused by those who have studied it:

“[…]Within the context of the discussion, students listen closely to the comments of others, thinking critically for themselves, and articulate their own thoughts and their responses to the thoughts of others. They learn to work cooperatively and to question intelligently and civilly” [6]

The scholarship culminates in a formally assessed public speaking activity in which pupils explain and justify their thinking around the topic of their choice before being awarded commended, highly commended or distinction, aiming to reward metacognition and the process of learning rather than just linear attainment.

What have the lessons been like?

Above: The Experientia Scholarship

I will share one example of the impact that I have observed of the Socratic approach with a Year 4 group.

The first discussion in the Year 4 unit on ‘who makes the news?’ is an introduction to the concept of fake news and an examination of the people who could gain from spreading misinformation. In a follow-up discussion, pupils look at the idea of censorship and consider the occasions when they believe it is justified before reading a text about president Xi Jinping who, it is reported, censored Winnie the Pooh in China after memes emerging online mocking supposed similarities between them offended him.

The girls had decided that there are circumstances in which censorship is warranted. They gave the examples of internet blocking on their devices at school and people sending offensive messages as times when it would be right to censor. I was fascinated when the implications of their reasoning were applied to the example of Xi Jinping. While there was broad agreement that offensive communication should be censored, a vocal group of girls emerged who came to the conclusion that presidents, being in a unique position of influence and power, were to be treated differently than the general population, and in this case the rights for the people to criticise the president should be defended.

The ability of the girls to form critical connections when introduced to reasoning in this way was powerfully illustrated to me recently with the same group while watching Newsround coverage of Trump contesting the presidential election count. Pupils were immediately able to identify this as misinformation, and crucially were able to articulate the motivation for Trump to do so, as well as identifying the dangerous implications.

Teachers from across the Junior School have also commented on the impact they have noticed the Scholarship having in other areas of the curriculum. In an English lesson, Year 5 girls were able to articulate their thoughts around intrinsic gender bias and the etymology of words, citing the example of ‘female’ being the negative form of ‘male’, and explaining that this issue had been thrown up in discussion with Mrs Walles-Brown about whether art is inclusive.

I asked the girls to share their thoughts describing what their Experientia lessons have been like. This word cloud formed from their responses neatly summarises the general consensus felt after the first half term of the Experientia Scholarship in the Upper Junior School.

Above: Summary of The Experientia Workshop

Further Reading

Carpenter, B., A Recovery Curriculum: Loss and Life for our children and schools post pandemic, Evidence For Learning [online], 2020,

Israel, E., “Examining Multiple Perspectives in Literature.”  In Inquiry and the Literary Text: Constructing Discussions in the English Classroom, NCTE, 2002

McConville, A., Bedales: Rethinking Assessment [online], 2020,

Rosen, M., Dear Gavin Williamson, here’s how to avoid more exam catastrophes, The Guardian [online], 2020,

Wells, G., and Claxton, G., Learning for Life in the 21st Century, Sociocultural Perspectives on the Future of Education, Blackwell, London, 2002


[1]Carpenter, B., A Recovery Curriculum: Loss and Life for our children and schools post pandemic, Evidence For Learning [online], 2020,

[2] Wells, G., and Claxton, G., Learning for Life in the 21st Century, Sociocultural Perspectives on the Future of Education, Blackwell, London, 2002,

[3] Rosen, M., Dear Gavin Williamson, here’s how to avoid more exam catastrophes, The Guardian [online], 2020,

[4] McConville, A., Bedales: Rethinking Assessment [online], 2020,

[5] Boyd, C., Experientia Vision Statement, Wimbledon High Junior School, 2020

[6] Israel, E., “Examining Multiple Perspectives in Literature.”  In Inquiry and the Literary Text: Constructing Discussions in the English Classroom, NCTE, 2002

Mrs Wei Fang reviews Kris Boulton’s blog post: ‘Should we use questions to teach?’

Mrs Wei Fang, teacher of Mandarin at WHS, reflects on her own experience of questioning in the classroom, before reviewing a blog post by Kris Boulton ‘Should we use questions to teach?’

 “…the question is not why questions are better, it is when.”

As a language teacher, I have been thinking a lot about questioning in the classroom, getting students to really think about the grammar and vocabulary they learnt, in order to improve their understanding and memorising. For example, ‘how’ questions are particularly useful in assisting students to remember Chinese characters, or hanzi: ‘How do you know the meaning of this character?’ Students would answer: It means juice 汁  because it has water radical (the components of characters that indicate meaning). I then would retrieve other learning from their long-term memory by asking an elaboration question: ‘Where else can you see this radical?’. Giving students the thinking time, asking them to connect their learning and expecting a better answer are very important strategies of questioning.

However, questions do not always go well. At times I asked a series of questions and felt like my questions were much longer than the students’ answer. They seemed to be confused about why I asked those questions. I then reflected on my lesson and realised that: why didn’t I just explain it?

So, it is time to think about why we ask questions. Kristopher Boulton argues that questions are not necessarily better than explanations, though sometimes he switches to questions when he feels the need to promote understanding. In his blog post ‘Should we use questions to teach? -1&2”, he addresses that the question is not why questions are better, it is when. He concluded that: ‘questions can be very effective tools of teaching, but they must be used with incredible care.’ A very structured grid of various question types concluded by him and another blogger can be found here:

Question Spectrum

The above matrix is made for Maths, but one can be also useful for other subjects. It brought to my attention the pointlessness of allowing students to guess without establishing their prior knowledge. In Mandarin, there is language content that is better to be explicitly taught first, especially the content that doesn’t exist in English, for example: tones, measure words, characters (not randomly drawing it but with certain orders), as well as unique culture conception such as Hukou (a system of household registration used in China), etc. In order to enhance understanding, I once asked year 7 students to analyse the tones, by asking them the differences between Chinese and English sounds. As a result of lacking enough input of Chinese, some students were struggling to tell the differences among the four tones. They told me that the rising and turning tones sound the same. In this case, further questions on this will confuse them. It made all the difference the next time when I made them practice tones for enough time, and then asked them to tell me which tones they have heard and why (verbalizing burgeoning understanding). A key quotation from Boulton that I keep in mind for my subject is ‘never ask pupils questions to which they have not already been told the answer, unless they know enough that answering the question requires them only inching forwards.’


Kristopher Boulton


Community: the crux of the post lockdown classroom

Amidst national concerns about students’ academic progress during lockdown, Suzy Pett, Director of Studies at Wimbledon High, thinks about the far more essential point: that the return to the classroom – and the very act of learning itself – is intrinsically about human connection and communion.

As Director of Studies at Wimbledon High School, now more than ever I am thinking about what our classrooms will look and feel like in September. As a teacher of 10 years, I’m familiar with the end-of-summer surge of excitement and apprehension about school return. Despite the nerves, there is something ritualistic and reassuring about it. In the words of Philip Larkin, we can ‘begin afresh, afresh, afresh’.

But, with Covid-19 having forced us from our physical classrooms for so long, this time it feels different. There is, of course, the fact that classrooms will now look unfamiliar. In a throwback to times gone by, students will all be facing forward, with the teacher pinned to their white board or laptop at the front. However, the changes run deeper. I’ve been thinking through the implications of them on the very way we teach.

Concern about the lack of learning during lockdown is understandably high in the national consciousness. Exasperated parents took to Twitter, wryly pleading for “Alexa [to] please home school my child.” A study by the National Foundation for Educational Research reported that most students did fewer than 3 hours study per day. Educators worked harder than ever to engage and motivate students, with innovative online programs. Fortunately, there were many success stories, and at Wimbledon High our Guided Home Learning allowed students to maintain pace and progress in their education.

However, teachers across the country will be returning acutely aware of the curriculum content they need to cover. They will be detecting where students’ understanding might be shaky from home learning. They will employ their most winning combination of quizzing, questioning and testing to unearth – and then fill – any knowledge or skills gaps. They will be helping students to self-reflect and be ready to proffer feedback. In pursuit of maximum academic progress, classrooms will be aglow with teachers’ voices enthusing, encouraging, cajoling and reassuring their students. There will be – I am certain – no lack of ambition for what this generation of young people will achieve this year.

Though, what is uppermost in my mind as I prepare for school return in September, is the fundamental nature of the classroom as a community. With reports of students feeling increasingly isolated and disconnected in lockdown, it’s even clearer to me that learning is an act that unites. Whilst I am ardent about academic progress, I am far more attuned at the start of this school year to how my methods of teaching can forge those much-needed meaningful, human bonds.

It goes without saying that the soul of the classroom is far more than the acquisition of knowledge. Intrinsic to the very process of learning is human connection and communion. With the flimsy and chimeric relationships on social media, our classroom spaces – and the way we teach – can be a salve for young people needing to feel part of a more stable community. Lesson rules become shared customs. Rigorous class discussion allows every student to have a voice that is heard. Opinions and ideas are shared and probed so that conversation is far more nuanced and rich than social media sound bites. Judging the right challenge and pace of learning creates trust as students rely on each other and their teacher to problem-solve and move forward.

In lessons, we metaphorically go through the woods and come out the other side. Together. Connected. No one is left behind. And, it is teachers’ careful planning and pedagogy that enable this. Online learning went some way to recreate this, but nothing will beat the power of in-person learning to rekindle that sense of togetherness for young people.

Here at Wimbledon High we’ve always believed in the intertwining of pastoral and academic care. They are not separate. As I start this school year and think about my teaching practice for the months ahead, I am convinced of this more than ever.


Why a teacher should never stop being a pupil: from the perspective of the MFL classroom

Mrs Claire Baty, Head of French, looks at the idea of teachers being life-long learners, and the benefits this affords in our classrooms.

It’s widely accepted that learning something new can enhance your quality of life, give you confidence, have a positive impact on your mental health and above all be fun. “Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever” (Ghandi). Yet learning from scratch, purely for the cognitive challenge, is something that most of us rarely do.

As a French teacher, my focus has always been on imparting knowledge; enthusing and, I hope, inspiring my students to learn this language that I have spent years studying. I encourage my students to be curious beyond the curriculum. I ask Key Stage 3 to look up extra words to extend their topic specific vocabulary beyond the confines of the textbook. I set Key Stage 4 longer, more authentic reading and listening texts to decipher, hoping to instil a desire to build upon their knowledge. I expect Key Stage 5 to indulge in research into cultural, literary and historical topics beyond the course. I hope that they do this with the same sense of pleasure that I feel when doing the exact same thing. Yet, I haven’t taken into consideration that for my students, especially those in Years 7-11, they are not yet fluent in this language. French is still new to them. When I read the news in French or look up a word from a novel I am reading, none of it is new, I am merely building on years of study, whereas my students are starting from scratch.

So to become the pupil again and experience language learning from the perspective of the student in the MFL classroom, was an opportunity that couldn’t be missed. Learning Mandarin alongside a class of Year 8 students is enlightening in so many ways. Not only have I learnt how to introduce myself and family in Mandarin, I have found myself reconsidering how we learn language and the effectiveness of our methods for the students that we teach.

The reality of learning a new language

Chinese is a fundamentally different language to the European languages that I am familiar with but, if I am totally honest, I expected to find it easy to make progress quickly, after all I am a linguist, a languages teacher and a motivated student with the advantage of knowing how to learn a language. In reality, it is proving less obvious than I had first thought!

My desire to always get it right has a direct impact on my confidence and self-consciousness when speaking in Mandarin. Even when I know the word I am profoundly aware of the lack of authenticity of my pronunciation. What is more, I was completely unprepared for how difficult it is to multi-task during a classroom based lesson. Copying vocabulary from the board, whilst listening to the sound of the word and trying to remember the meaning all at the same time as being prepared to answer a question from the teacher requires an agility of mind that is hard to achieve. But, perhaps most surprisingly for a linguist, is how hard I find it to recall new vocabulary from one lesson to the next without considerable pre-lesson preparation and sneaky glancing at notes! As a teacher, I often find myself saying to my French classes “but we saw this word last lesson in exercise X, page Y”. I now understand first-hand how difficult instant retrieval of vocabulary is, but also how important it is if you want to progress in a language.

If this is how I am feeling, when the language classroom is my ‘zone’, then how do my students feel? As teachers, do we ask too much of them each day or do they adapt to the demands placed upon them as learners and I am just out of practice?

Above: Mrs Dai teaching Mandarin

How is second language taught?

Due to the closure of schools in March, my experience of learning Mandarin has moved from face-to-face classroom learning to independent textbook exercises, remote virtual learning and online platforms such as Duolingo, inadvertently placing me in a good position to consider this question.

In the MFL classroom we learn by rote, repetition, hearing others, practising, being creative with the language, revisiting previous knowledge. Independent access to a textbook is valuable to a point but then you need an expert to answer questions (and I have lots of questions!). Remote learning has become part of the ‘classroom’ experience and unexpectedly for me, the sense of anonymity created by initials in black squares during a TEAMS video conference has actually helped me to feel more confident when speaking in Mandarin and more inclined to take a risk. I wonder if my French students feel the same.

But what about all the online platforms available that claim they are the best way to learn a language? These applications offer a totally different approach to language learning. Often providing minimal explanation of key words or grammar, the focus is clearly on lots of practice, which means you get things wrong – all the time! To some extent this mimics how a child might learn a language; seeing and hearing words in context with lots of repetition. Whilst I must admit that these platforms are addictive because of their gaming style, I find myself wanting greater explanation. I want to read the notes, make my own notes, learn the information before attempting the exercise, whereas Duolingo seems determined to force me to have a go and risk getting it wrong.

What about the role of online translators? I have spent most of my working life warning students of the pitfalls of ‘Google Translate’. Every language teacher can give numerous examples of student’s work containing glaring and often comical errors, yet now that I am a beginner learner of Mandarin who is frustrated that the textbook glossary doesn’t contain the word I want to use, I find myself turning to Google Translate more and more frequently and with a surprising level of success. Perhaps the key here is that I am also a linguist and language teacher and hence know what pitfalls to look out for. But this does support what language teachers have been forced to accept; that A.I has transformed machine-based translation and Google Translate is no longer the enemy it once was. I agree whole heartedly with my colleague, Adèle Venter who, in her article Approaches to using online language tools and AI to aid language learning, says that students need to be taught how to use these tools rather than being told not to use them at all.

Above: STEAM Spanish with Ms Horno Garcia

How does this affect my teaching?

What have I learnt from this whole experience, apart from being able to introduce myself and family in Chinese? Can learning a new language make me a better French teacher?

  • Knowing how to learn helps you learn. I am at an advantage over my fellow Mandarin students, not because I am innately any better than them at Mandarin, but because I know how to take notes, revise vocabulary and practise the language independently. Activities aimed at improving pupil’s metacognitive skills must be a significant part of the classroom experience.
  • It is also clear that retrieval practice needs to be a priority in every lesson. Ross Morrison-McGill (TeacherToolkit) makes an interesting link with the ‘knowledge’ test for London black cab drivers. According to his article Why do London cab drivers know so much? “spaced practice and interleaving” are the key to memory. I would also agree with Andy Tharby who comments in his article Memory Platforms that quizzing is a far more powerful tool to retrieval than re-reading notes or listening to teacher explanations. The latter create what he refers to as an ‘illusion of fluency’ – we think we know when in fact the knowledge doesn’t stick. Effective starter activities that encourage the transfer of knowledge from one lesson to another, one topic to another need to be incorporated into every lesson.
  • Students need time in lessons to reflect, to consider what they are learning, to form and then ultimately ask questions and to consolidate their learning. Being overwhelmed, tired even anxious can all stem from a feeling of busyness that comes from having a distracted mind. We feel busy because we are in the habit of doing one thing while thinking about the next ( Giving students time to process and complete the task I am asking of them during a lesson could lead to much deeper understanding and as a result, greater confidence.

I am not learning Mandarin because I have immediate plans to travel to China, nor do I need to use the language every day to communicate at home or at work (although I can see how it would be beneficial), I am learning purely for the sake of learning something new. It’s exciting to be able to do something that I couldn’t do 10 months ago. The change of perspective that has been afforded to me by becoming the pupil rather than the teacher is invaluable and I am excited to consider what I will change about my own classroom practice as a result.

Further reading and references

The Power of Listening

Suzanne East, Head of Year 12 at WHS, looks at how listening can empower us as teachers and learners.

I am a talker, and I suspect that is true of many teachers.  We get a buzz from sharing our passions for our subject, from explaining and answering questions and from solving problems.  But increasingly my attention has been drawn to the importance of listening as a vital way to genuinely shift our focus away from ourselves, our opinions and assumptions; forcing us to notice what is really happening for our students, what they are learning and the journey they are making as they engage with the information we are presenting.

During this time of lock down this has been brought into sharper focus as we realise what we miss by not being able to see and hear our pupils in person.  I think many of us have experienced that unsettling feeling of talking into the void, calling out for any pupil to respond!  This has added to my intention to ensure that I bring good quality listening to my school life once we return.

Concerns about the quality of listening may be a reaction to the Twitter generation which seems to demand that we constantly project our thoughts and ideas out into the world – this demand to be seen and heard where perhaps nobody is doing the listening.  But we have long been aware that it is easier to notice and respond to the louder and more obvious messages that can be presented by students.  Susan Cain’s “Quiet: The power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking” reminded us of what we may miss if we don’t stop to make sure that all voices are heard, and of our obligation as teachers to ensure that no one is overlooked.

Above: Image by Anemone123 from Pixabay

Attending mindfulness sessions with MiSP and again in courses with the Positive Group, I started to realise the difference between my usual listening style and what really thoughtful and attentive listening can be. The requirement to stop and to observe your surroundings is closely linked to the need to listen as well. To stop sending messages out and to take time to notice what is actually being said. Practising this stillness and trying to observe the moment was both a relief and a revelation.  Accepting that I don’t have to respond to everything straight away, fighting the urge to jump in when listening even to a simple story, and noticing my instinct to mould what I hear to fit my own experience and expectation was a real eye opener.

One listening activity many of you may have tried is that of working in pairs to sit silently for between 1 to 3 minutes whilst the partner describes a situation, perhaps a simple event like a holiday or a more emotional experience such as a recent frustration or disappointment.  In either case it is revealing to notice the desire as a listener to interrupt, join in and comment, rather than allowing the story to be and remain that of the storyteller.  Feeling that listening to each other is a skill our girls will also need to develop, and we have tried this with Y12.

We asked them to sit back to back in pairs to listen for one minute to their partner and then to repeat back what they had heard. Giving time to listen to the end of the story and then telling the account back allows a sense of mutual understanding to grow and holds a mirror to the mistakes we often make in our everyday interactions. By actually doing this exercise the girls were able to start to experience this for themselves and to acknowledge their own behaviours. We know that many friendship issues arise from not listening honestly to each other and the damage done by quick reactions to a message on social media which can then take months of unpicking to repair the hurt caused.

Encouraging girls to listen fully to the whole story, to think before they act, and to go back and check with each other to see if they have understood correctly, are all useful tools in diffusing potentially viral misunderstandings. Despite all our efforts to be more inclusive and to accept diversity, we also live in a social media age which encourages swift reactions with a quick “like” or “dislike”. It is our responsibility as educators to highlight the potentially damaging impact of this and to explore the advantage of allowing space to consider the nuanced motivations that contribute to individual actions and decisions. We explored this further with our Sixth Form using the three chairs activity, in which the same situation was described from the perspective of the protagonist, victim and a fly on the wall.  In my group the fairly trivial example of Horrid Henry and Perfect Peter led to a surprisingly rich discussion on the different motivations for bullying.

We want our students to be able to open up to us and we want to help them to live happier and more fulfilled lives. From our greater age, we can look back at the challenges of teenage life and see where we could have done it better, but that is not what any student wants to hear; we have to be careful to make sure the conversation remains focussed on the student and not on us or our ability to problem solve quickly.

Neuroscientist Sarah Jayne-Blackmore has spoken and written many times on the nature of the adolescent brain and reasons why it leads to greater risk-taking behaviour, and how this behaviour is significantly influenced by peer group approval. We want to influence our students and encourage them to make what we consider the best decisions, but the evidence suggests that they are not going to hear us unless we really take time to listen and understand what is important to them.  We allocate time to one to one conversations with form tutors in the sixth form, but successfully managing these is not easy and tutors need to be skilful in creating a situation of trust in which a student can really open up.  Mark Wilmore, one of our tutors with many years of experience as a Samaritan, training as a Counsellor and also as a sixth form tutor, shared his top tips for these conversations:

  • Check in & boundaries
  • Non-verbal communication
  • Listen ‘actively’
  • Have an agenda
  • Try to avoid closed questions
  • Use challenge where appropriate
  • Feedback
  • Set targets
  • Keep a written record
  • Follow up

Making it obvious to the student that these conversations are important – that they deserve proper time and attention and that we are genuinely listening to their experience and their story – are vital in building a successful relationship.  Body language and preparation will tell the student far more than words, so making sure you have time to genuinely be there for them is vital, as they will be quick to assume that we are not really interested and then any words of wisdom we have will fall on stony ground.

It is also an important part of a student’s development to struggle and to find their own solutions to problems. We need to empower them with the confidence to know that they can make the change for themselves and that they have the skills that they will need.  Rachel Simmonds says in Enough As She Is that “suffering is key to our children’s learning” and “that the price of some of our most important life lessons-the ones that make us wiser, tougher, and more capable-is pain, even heart-break” (Simmonds p200).  This isn’t to leave them on their own, but to be with them and give them space to sound out their own solutions so that next time they know they will manage better.

In PSHE earlier this year we invited the Samaritans in to talk with Y12.  Hearing the accounts of these masters of listening without judgement, the ones that those who are feeling most isolated and rejected turn to were truly inspiring.  But they emphasised that the skills of listening were something that we should all practise in our relationships to help avoid people becoming isolated in the first place.  Their campaign Shush “wants to encourage people to listen to the really important things their friends, family and colleagues need to tell them, and to devote some time and attention to being better listeners” (Samaritans).  This was a powerful session, which left us all awed by the potential impact each one of us can make by just taking the time to stop and listen and allowing others to be heard.


Blackmore, Sarah-Jayne

Cain, Susan (2012) Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a world that Can’t Stop Talking, Crown Publishing Group/Random House, Inc.

Mindfulness for schools

Positive group


Simmons, Rachel (2018) “We Can’t Give Our Children What We Don’t Have” in Enough As She Is Harper Collins, New York.

Guided home learning reflections

Rachel Evans, Director of Digital Learning & Innovation, writes a personal reflection on the past two months as WHS planned and implemented our Guided Home Learning programme, and considers what lies ahead.

It’s 16th March and I’m getting ready to leave school, knowing that I’m unlikely to be back at my desk with its view of the cherry blossom for a good while. My husband has called to say he has a temperature and cough, meaning self-isolation for my household. I gather some freebie cloth bags from BETT and cram them with everything I think I might need, leaving behind a stack of library books – I come to regret this later! Within a week I’m being video-called by a colleague who holds his phone aloft so that I can see and hear the whole school singing our school song as we close the site, and Mrs Lunnon says “Whatever happens, however long this is, be brilliant.” It all seems rather unreal.

As the Covid-19 crisis mounted in late February and early March, along with other schools across the world we began to plan how we could continue teaching and learning as our staff and students scattered to their homes. We have been committed for the past 5 years to integrating technology for teaching and learning – both in terms of hardware, with our BYOD scheme and Junior iPads, and software, as a Microsoft Showcase School. Nevertheless, the challenges of this unprecedented situation are significant, and like all use of technology in education, go far beyond simply having the right tech in place.

Back in January, Suzy Pett (Assistant Head Teaching & Learning) and I had been privileged to speak at the BETT educational technology show and share our WHS digital philosophy with a wider audience. What has struck me as we have rolled out our Guided Home Learning programme is how those values have been tried and tested in this unprecedented situation. Edtech should be an excellent tool, seamless and most importantly authentic. How did these principles guide us in practice?

An excellent tool

We’re always clear that we have a ‘pedagogy first’ approach to using technology and we’re careful to select software and systems that deliver value, rather than being gimmicky or distracting. This was helpful as we considered what ‘home learning’ would look like in practice. Teams allows video-conferencing, something we had only tentatively explored before between colleagues. Now we made the decision to offer at least some ‘live’ lessons remotely, and added in the practical details – the way we’d use Teams announcements to start lessons, our protocols for video conference lessons, and how our existing use of OneNote would fit into this model.

In the Junior years, we began with simple Firefly pages, then worked over Easter to move to a more interactive offering. Choosing Firefly Tasks was straightforward, while Flipgrid would offer some interaction between the girls and chances for personalised video feedback for every pupil from her teachers.

What skills did teachers need to feel confident and secure with these new features of familiar systems, and with some entirely new apps? We created a common approach to ‘lessons’ so that staff and students alike would have clear expectations and a consistent experience with a clear framework of skills to learn. We ran in-person training sessions for all staff, and then, after the site closed, online training in Teams (sometimes about Teams, which can be surreal!). We all became inexpert videographers, finding ad-hoc ways to make, edit and share videos of tips, and training sessions. We were grateful for Microsoft’s extensive support materials, and our GDST sister schools and other professional networks of colleagues, to share ideas and pool materials.

Above: Year 11 English Annotations


As the weeks have gone by there have of course been peaks and troughs in the experiences of all concerned – both technical and human. On the first Monday as pupils across the world stayed at home, both Teams and Firefly faltered. We are all at the mercy of our home wi-fi connections with most providers having outages at times. No software or system is perfect, and we are often pushing at the edges of the original design and use cases which are mostly based on being together in physical school.  Teachers and parents alike feel the pressure of combining childcare, home learning and full-time jobs. But we do believe that alongside a plethora of subject-specific online resources, these systems have enabled us to continue with teaching and learning that has been effective, productive and not too impossible to manage for students, staff or parents.

Above: Year11-13 elective video call on Teams

Feedback and listening to the community in the first week led us to deliver new advice for teachers – we began to move away from trying to replicate an offline experience in an online environment. (There was much discussion of synchronous and asynchronous learning – terms bandied about which were unknown to non-experts the week before!) A video call in Teams can’t feel like a lesson – you can’t see everyone at once and interactions quickly feel stilted and frustrating. But making use of the chat, the thumbs-up emoji, limiting the time on the call and following up with text-based chat or collaborative work in OneNote makes all the difference. We started working differently: taking the pedagogical aim – for instance, the benefit of small group discussions in a lesson – and working out how to deliver that effectively in Teams – by having group channels with the teacher dropping in to listen and give feedback. We encouraged teachers to break away from the screen as well, for everyone’s wellbeing and to bring the variety of types of work they would to a ‘real life’ lesson.

Our wonderful teaching staff have a high confidence level with the technology because we use it every day, and that has allowed them to experiment and explore. This week, the Head of German and I have figured out how to add subtitles or voiceover in a foreign language to an existing film clip with the software we have or free apps. We’ve got some ideas and learnt some new stuff, and we know the girls will come up with even more. Everyone is rising to the challenge of exploring and integrating new tools and new ideas – whether that’s a deeper knowledge of systems we used already, or brand new work.


Early in our planning, Fionnuala Kennedy, our Senior Deputy Head, came up with the three words to sum up our approach – clarity, consistency and connection.

Connection – use the technology at our disposal to stay connected with each other in as human a way as possible.

Whenever I speak about our digital strategy, I always put authentic first in the list. Our vision for digital technology embedded in our school life is a holistic and human-centred one. I talk about the need for the use of technology in schools to respect teachers’ professional judgements and their personal approaches. More technology is not necessarily better: teachers must choose their own path and my role is to encourage, guide, facilitate. Now we were all going off to our own homes to interact with one another entirely via screen, and one size did have to fit all in order to allow us a safe, consistent and calm remote learning experience. My peers on Twitter were jubilant that for digital specialists, our time had come! I wasn’t so sure it was that simple.

Above: Year 8 Spanish

I shouldn’t have worried. Our Wimbledonian spirit has meant that although we are all working in an unfamiliar and more standardised way, individuality has triumphed. Ms Phillips taught a remote sewing class, by voice and whiteboard from Teams; Dr Neumann encouraged her class to go outside, get a flower, dissect and photograph it; Spanish classes made board games; English classes acted out their text with soft toys; music groups made amusing remote ensemble videos; Junior girls in STEAM club explained their wacky home science experiments on Flipgrid. In among the functional necessity of online learning our authenticity and creativity has shone through.

Back in January at BETT, I quoted Georgia, a Year 13 student, talking about collaborating with her peers online:

“you’re helping others, they are helping you… It adds a new dimension to learning that doesn’t make it seem so stifled.”

This has turned out to be as true as ever. It’s been superb to see even the Year 5 and 6 girls who are new to using Teams and OneNote not only collaborating, but problem-solving and encouraging one another and their teachers in a warm and kind community.

Above: Year 10 Biology

What have we learned? And what comes next?

Although it feels a great deal longer, we have been away from our much-loved school building for 26 school days, as I write this. In a period characterised by fast-paced and ever-changing decision making, it’s salutary to pause and listen before we start thinking about the lessons we may have learned. We still have the challenge ahead of returning to our school site with social distancing in place. It’s clearer than ever that this is a marathon not a sprint, and that we’re all learning as we go.  Nevertheless, I’d like to share a few themes that seem to me to have emerged already.

Humility & Openness

Hardly anyone responsible for planning or delivering the remote learning taking place in schools throughout the world is an expert in the pedagogy and science of online or distance learning. It’s not part of our usual skill set. Remote learning is not like learning in a classroom and the two are not interchangeable. What those of us in education have achieved in the past eight weeks is our very best effort to ensure that learning is sustained for our students during a global crisis and unprecedented social lockdown. We’ve used our pedagogical expertise, and our deep knowledge of and care for our students and teachers to create a programme that works in our own context.

What we should do as we plan for the next academic year is make sure that we draw on expertise in the fields of online learning, instructional design and distance learning. We can then design new timetables, develop and modify our schemes of work, and put in place appropriate technology and courses to ensure that we can move to even more pedagogically robust guided home learning should we need to do so again. We can learn lessons from this experience and open up to new ideas for the future. A flexible, creative and exciting way of thinking about ‘school’ may lie ahead.

Above: Example of a Year 7 DT Class

Wellbeing & Community

We must remember that for all the cheerful social media sharing of birdsong and baking bread, for many people in our society this period may have been incredibly difficult – for reasons of economic disadvantage, personal risk of illness, mental health challenges and bereavement. Supporting the wellbeing of our own community and looking outwards to help others wherever we can – as our staff and girls have done wonderfully – has been paramount.

Within the school, finding ways to keep us connected digitally, both serious and fun, has been a privilege. Seeing staff and students create video assemblies, online quizzes, and share music and art have all been a joy. One of our students wrote:

“when watching the assembly this morning from Mrs Lunnon, I saw the views of the video rising. It was so satisfying and empowering to watch all the WHS seniors watching the same video as me at the same time.”

We may not want to abandon these entirely when we return to our school site, for the sense of connection they can offer.

International & National Collaboration

In this most global of crises, seeing the education community come together across the world has been inspiring. Through the Microsoft network, schools have shared their experiences and ideas. The value of online interaction and our new ease with video call technology has opened our eyes to new possibilities  – with friends in our international and local partner schools, and closer to home in our GDST family. This, as Jane Lunnon noted in The Telegraph this week, is a real opportunity to arise from this challenge. Sharing experiences, ideas and resources, working collaboratively, and learning with and from one another may be a positive outcome from this crisis.


International collaborative work to plan for home learning:

Academic resources for remote and online learning:

Our stories: @wimbledonhigh on Twitter for examples of our Guided Home Learning programme and volunteering stories from our community





Taxi drivers, not bus drivers

Suzy Pett, Assistant Head Teaching and Learning, looks at individual learning and discusses some of the benefits of this approach to teachers and learners.

As a school, our first strategic objective is for pupils to ‘step in’ and ‘be known’. As such, individualised learning goes to the heart of what we do. I’ve heard teachers described as bus drivers rather than taxi drivers, but I don’t think that reflects our ethos at WHS. We know that every pupil will get to the destination – we have the same high expectations of all our pupils – but we know that the route and journey will be different for each pupil. At WHS, we do not offer a mass transport education system, but we think of our pupils as individuals.

WHS RS Class
Above: WHS RS Class in action

Last year, John Hattie, author of the game-changing book ‘Visible Learning’, added some new categories to his meta-analysis of factors relating to student achievement. Coming in third out of 252 influences is ‘Teacher estimates of achievement’ with a value of 1.29.[1] To put this in context, the average effect size of all the interventions studied is 0.4. So, clearly, this is a big deal. This rating reflects the accuracy of an individual teacher’s knowledge of pupils and how that knowledge determines the kinds of classroom activities and materials as and difficulty of the tasks assigned. So, knowing your pupils is vital. It makes sense.

However, the idea of differentiation is fraught. Rather than being the elixir of learning, differentiation conjures an array of fears. Quite rightly, the negative potential of differentiation comes under fire. In our context of motivated and ambitious pupils, I cringe at lesson plans which explicitly seek to limit outcomes through so-called differentiation. The once popular tripartite formula of lesson plans – ‘all will’, ‘most will’, ‘some will’ – seemed a quick way to show your awareness of the different abilities in your class. Really, what it did was reveal a lack of confidence in all pupils achieving mastery, and your skills as a teacher to facilitate that. It resulted in a lower expectation of what “less able” pupils could achieve.

Above: WHS Classics class in action

A second concern about differentiation is that it can oversimplify learning. With the benign intention of making learning accessible for some pupils, excessively scaffolded tasks in fact remove the challenge and the opportunity to find things hard. A frequent mantra we hear in the teaching community is: “A teacher’s job is not to make work easy. It is to make it difficult”. Deep learning comes with struggle, something that educationalist Lev Vygosky also suggests: our pupils should operate within their ‘Zones of Proximal Development’. This involves facing challenges just beyond their current capabilities, with the right level of scaffolding to point the way.[2] Although disproportionate struggle has a detrimental effect, the danger with differentiation is that, keen to support those who will find it hardest, we remove the struggle altogether. The completion of the ‘dumbed down’ task at a lower level is the learner’s modest prize.[3]

A third concern is around teacher workload. The teacher is frazzled with creating multiple routes through the lesson, concocting various worksheets for the same task and putting on ‘clinics’ outside of lessons to cater for all needs. There is no time to reflect on what is working in the classroom, accurately assessing pupils and responding by planning creative and engaging lessons. Pupils are equally frazzled, spending lunchtimes yo-yoing between ‘clinics’.

So what does excellent individualised learning look like in a class setting? For me, assessment is the compass for differentiation. To really know our pupils, we need a sharp sense of what they struggled with and where they misunderstood ideas. It’s not got enough to find this out in a ‘clinic’ and to put it right then. Assessment and the resulting differentiation needs to happen in class. So rigorous Q&A is vital, as is effective and regular low-stakes testing. During class discussion, we need to focus as much on error as on what pupils got right so we know where the gaps are. We need to find out where the sticking point is for some members of the class, and then put in place plans to address it within lesson time.  Knowing your pupils is vital and responding to that knowledge in small, sometimes incremental ways, is what differentiation is all about. Tom Sherrington, author of The Learning Rainforest, summarises this brilliantly in a blog post: “You may feel that John is coasting a bit; he needs a push this lesson.  It may be that Albert has looked a bit bored of late. He might be finding things a bit easy; let’s really crank it up this lesson.  The last time Rory handed his book in it was a bit of a shocker; I need to sit with him this lesson and get a few things sorted out.  Daniel is always just below the top level. Why is that? Maybe he needs to do some re-drafting and I need to absolutely insist that he does it again and again until it’s hitting the top level.”[4] It’s not all about the separate worksheet, or the extra clinic. It’s about the sustained and regular interactions we have with pupils on a daily basis. That’s individualised learning.