The Kirtle: The Original Dress

[Early 17th century kirtle, ‘the lute player’, Orazio Gentileschi]

Pheoebe C in Year 12 explores the evolution of the kirtle, from its origins to its more modern form, the dress.

A kirtle is a one-piece garment that was popular in Western Europe from the early Middle Ages up into the 17th century. Mentions of the kirtle date back to as early as the 10th century[1], and painted depictions survive from throughout the 17th century[2]. Initially worn by both men and women (although men’s kirtles are often referred to as ‘cotehardies’ in modern scholarship, they are fundamentally the same[3]), men’s fashion gradually shifted away, towards the shirts and trousers we see in menswear today. However, the basic concept of the kirtle still survives in modern-day dresses, making it perhaps the most influential garment in the entire history of Western fashion.

[Kirtle from 15th century manuscript]

The kirtle was the first western ‘dress’, so to speak. Although clothing had also previously consisted of one long garment draped over the whole body, the kirtle was made to fit around the human body, rather than be wrapped and manipulated with folds and belts until it fit. Additionally, it needed no extra closures such as pins or brooches, as previous garments had done. Examples of the kirtle’s predecessor include Roman togas (and other robes), as well the Anglo-Saxon peplos[4]. These garments were loose-fitting and tended to be made of just a large rectangle (or two) of fabric, pinned or tied around the body, and often sleeveless. The kirtle was also one of the first Western garments which required no extra undergarments (although they were often worn in combination with other garments for warmth or practicality anyway). They had sleeves and were long enough to also cover the legs, circumventing the need for several additional items of clothing, and instead combining them all into one.


Kirtles started off as both under and outerwear, and it wasn’t uncommon to wear both an under-kirtle and an over-kirtle. The under-kirtle would have been made from a cheaper fabric that could survive frequent washing, whereas the outer-kirtle would be finer or decorated in some way. Kirtles were usually woollen, however, linen was sometimes used depending on environment and availability[5]. As time went on, the upper classes progressed to only wearing kirtles as undergarments, whereas the lower classes used them as main outer-garments for much longer[6].

Of course, since the popularity of the kirtle lasted over half a millennium, some evolution and change in style was inevitable. Early kirtles were loose-fitting and didn’t have waist-seams. However, by the 15th century they were skin-tight and then evolved to consist of separate skirts that were pleated or gathered before being attached to the bodice[7]. Kirtles were closed using lacing along the front, sides or back of the garment, although earlier examples of kirtles have no lacing at all. Since early kirtles were loose-fitting and had relatively wide necklines, lacing was unnecessary as they could just be put on over the head. Later, tighter kirtles also acted as a kind of prototype for the corset; they provided the kind of support we now receive from a modern bra.

[Kirtle with front lacing]

For example, here is a reconstruction of a 14th-century kirtle that I made a few years ago, versus the 17th-century one I made this summer.

[self-made 14th century kirtle & self-made 17th century kirtle]

Notice the stark difference in styles. Although, visually, they appear more different than similar, the fundamental and defining feature of the kirtle remains: a one-piece skirted garment.

Eventually, the kirtle fell out of fashion in favour of separate skirts and bodices among all classes. By the 18th century, there are barely any depictions of kirtles in art, even among lower-class and rural communities. While this development was inevitable since aristocratic fashion had long abandoned the kirtle in favour separate skirts, and working-class fashion has always followed upper class fashion- just at a delay of several decades- practicality was likely a major factor in this evolution. Combining a skirt with a separate jacket or bodice (still over the top of a shift) allowed the wearer to have more freedom in what they wore and saved unnecessary washing. It reduced the total number of garments someone needed to have a varied and adaptable wardrobe. It was also cheaper and quicker to make smaller individual pieces as required, rather than entire dresses. Additionally, as structural undergarments became more commonplace (providing bra-like support and shaping the torso, either in the form of early stays, as a pair of jumps, or as boning sewn directly into the bodice), the need for tight-fitting kirtles as supportive garments declined.

[example of separate skirt/jacket outfits worn by women of different classes. Woman reading a letter, Gabriel Metsu, c.1665-67]

The dress did come back into mainstream fashion eventually (after over a century- and even later in upper-class fashion). Although it looks unrecognisable from its medieval ancestor, the concept of the dress as a one-piece flowing garment originated with the kirtle in European fashion. Modern dresses also share this heritage, although construction techniques and style conventions have progressed significantly. In fact, the closest modern-day equivalents to the kirtle are various forms of European folk dress. The legacy of the kirtle lives on through garments such as the German Dirndl, a type of folk dress based off rural Alpine clothing in the 16th-18th centuries[8]. The modern Dirndl bares striking resemblance to the 17th century kirtle, and it is fair to presume that this is because one was based off the other, seeing as the kirtle was a very common working-class garment throughout Western Europe (including the Alpine region) at the time. Although it seems modern society has largely forgotten about the kirtle, its lasting impact is undeniably still evident in fashion today.

[modern dirndl example]

[1] Anglo-Saxon Female Clothing: Old English Cyrtel and Tunece, Donata Bulotta ( )

[2] ’A Peasant Family at Meal-time’, c1665, Jan Steen


[4] Dress In Anglo-Saxon England, Gale R. Owen-Crocker ( )





Project Flip – Embracing difference

Isabelle Alexander, Head of Neurodiversity and Hidden Differences, introduces Project Flip, an initiative created to improve the inclusion of students who are neurodiverse or have hidden differences, and to spread understanding of their experiences

Why Project Flip?
Improved awareness and knowledge of neurodivergent conditions have resulted in an increasing number of students at WHS being identified as being neurodivergent or having hidden differences. This is not surprising as around 18% of the working population consider themselves disabled and the student body at WHS is representative of this.
One of the aims of our school is to build an inclusive community. We promote inclusion and collaboration within our community so that every student can access the teaching approaches and resources they need to achieve their potential. Where all are seen and treated as equals, all have equal opportunities to thrive.
Project Flip set out to increase understanding and acceptance of neurodiversity and hidden differences in the wider community and adapt how we approach teaching, learning and socialisation. By addressing these areas in the school setting, adopting teaching approaches that can reach all students and by making the environment more flexible and adaptable, we would be initiating change in our society as a whole.

The students’ voices had to be at the heart of the project and listening to how our neurodivergent and hidden difference students felt about their educational experience was essential. They are the people with the understanding and knowledge of the difficulties faced daily and equally importantly, they are the people who will be shaping and leading the future. We did not set out with any fixed goals or outcomes in mind, as we hoped that they would develop and emerge organically – and indeed they did.
The project was not, however, without its hurdles. But after a poor start, over a series of weeks, a representative group of hidden difference and neurodivergent students met, agreed some key areas of discussion, and discussed!

Still from Project Flip video

The first thing the students concluded was that for change to happen, people needed to care. A video of them speaking, with some of them appearing in it, was created and presented in an assembly to the senior school. This was extremely powerful and made fellow students and teachers more aware about how they experience school and life.
The next step was for them to present the findings of the project to the Senior Leadership Team. They wanted to discuss their shared thoughts, how they felt and what actions they would like to see as a result. This included practical advice for teachers such as the pacing of lessons, ensuring that instructions were written as well as spoken, not drawing attention to their difference, and explicitly letting them know when we (the teachers) were going off on a tangent! Suggestions were made about signage in the school and furnishings in the classrooms. They also asked for a dedicated space where they could find some peace in the day or go to meet. In addition, there was total consensus that when a PHSE session is planned to deal with neurodiversity and hidden differences that there should be self-advocacy and they wanted to be involved.

The impact of this project has already been seen in several ways; during one of our parent forums, parents started spontaneously talking about the assembly video, even though they had not seen it. It had prompted conversations in homes – change was starting to happen.
Our PHSE sessions have changed; we invited a mother and daughter both with ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) to speak about their experiences. They were with us for the entire day, delivering a session to students, a training talk to teachers and finally an ‘in conversation’ information talk to parents that evening. During Autism Awareness Month, two young professional working women visited us and described what their life was like living with autism. Perhaps most effective of all, our Year 9 dyslexic students delivered a talk on dyslexia to the Year 7 students.
We have also held a “Question Time” where a panel of students with hidden differences candidly answered questions that had been sent in advance. The audience of teachers packed the Rutherford theatre. Panellists tackled questions such as: How can teachers make your school experience better? What is the one thing that teachers do that annoys you the most? How can we make the help subtle? How do you feel about going to university or the workplace with a hidden difference?
One of the outcomes that we had not anticipated was the camaraderie that developed within the group. For some, it was the first time, they had not felt alone in their difference. With this in mind, the Neurodiversity and Hidden Differences team will be starting a weekly lunchtime club where students can go informally to chat amongst themselves or for advice. We have also witnessed an increase in confidence our neurodivergent and hidden differences students, as their voices are being heard, awareness is increasing, and perceptions are changing.
This project was only possible because of trust and relationships. It would not have worked had we employed someone externally to run it or if the students had felt that nothing would be done as a result of it.

The future
The findings of the project have already been shared in a number of ways, including presentations at the Global Forum for Girls’ Education in Boston and the GDST Deputy Heads Conference. The Girls’ School Conference have also invited us to present. The momentum behind the idea is growing.
We are only on the start of our journey of increasing awareness, understanding and acceptance and are excited about continuing it from this point.

Why we need plants in every classroom


In this week’s WimTeach, Miss Judith Parker, Head of Spanish, explores the positive impact of biophilic classrooms on students’ learning outcomes and wellbeing, and advocates for plants in every classroom.

A couple of years ago I decided to brighten up my classroom and office by bringing in some plants from home. Aside from the accidental watering of the inside of someone’s locker, the effects were remarkably positive. The introduction of plants not only enlivened previously drab spaces but also invigorated students and colleagues. Research studies, including a project led by one of our GDST schools, are revealing the hidden benefits of classroom plants.

Mindfulness and wellbeing

When I first brought plants into my classroom, students and colleagues expressed reverently how calm they felt upon entering the space. There are plenty of opportunities for mindful moments of appreciation with plants. We delight in the gradual unfurling of a new leaf or the surprise appearance of a new shoot. Research studies on the psychological impact of indoor plants have demonstrated that they improve mental wellbeing through suppressing the sympathetic nervous system and reducing blood pressure.[1] A study[2] on hospital patients noted the therapeutic benefit of indoor plants and recommended them as a low-cost, straightforward intervention to improve post-surgical recovery.

The benefits of biophilic classrooms

Specific studies into the impact of plants in classrooms have shown that they enhance students’ learning. ‘Biophilic’ classrooms, which are designed to connect students and teachers to nature, have a positive impact on focus and creativity. Putney High School has paved the way here with their 9-month study on the impact of biophilic classrooms.  This led to a report[3] and exhibition of their designs and findings at this year’s Chelsea Flower Show. Their project is based on ‘The Flourish Model’ which aims to facilitate creativity through a tranquil environment. We are, of course, more likely to explore and innovate when we are feeling calm and safe, rather than anxious and stressed. Plants help us to get into that comfortable state. The report also demonstrates how better air quality from plants improves students’ concentration and engagement in lessons, as well as their emotional wellbeing.

“There are no gardening mistakes, only experiments” – Janet Kilburn Phillips

Plant care offers a new learning experience. It provides the opportunity to contribute towards a shared space through teamwork. There is a collective effort and pride in managing to keep plants at the very least alive, and ideally thriving.

I brought in several plants for my new tutor group in September. In typical WHS spirit, my wonderful Year 10s immediately embraced them with enthusiasm and affection. I returned for afternoon registration that same day to find that they had already added name labels to the pots. A consultation had taken place as to their ideal placement in the form room. Plant care brings out the nurturing instinct of our students, who earnestly confer about the optimum moisture level of the soil and in what parts of the room each species might be happiest. Our form’s ‘Head Gardeners’ take on their responsibility with the utmost diligence.

When faced with imminent school closure in the first lockdown, I entrusted my leafy collection to my students. Some had enthusiastically volunteered; others simply happened to pass through the MFL corridor and found themselves unexpectedly becoming surrogate plant parents. Email updates on my beloved plants, now scattered around students’ homes across London, punctuated the long months of lockdown and school closures. One student gently broke the news to me that a particular plant, despite her efforts, alas, had not survived the challenging times.

The plants of 10JIP have recently spent the half-term break in the homes of different form members, and several students are excited to bring in their own plants from home. Some students were hesitant about looking after plants as they had no experience in doing so, which is an even better reason to put them in charge. After all, at WHS we encourage students out of their comfort zone and towards experimentation, even in the face of potential failure.

Incorporating nature into our daily lives

For those of us living and working in congested and polluted urban areas, the sad reality is that we are spending very little time interacting with nature. We all want to be eco-friendly and care for our natural environment. However, we can easily spend consecutive days exclusively indoors and without any direct contact with the natural world. We need plants in our classrooms to maintain our connection with nature.

Plants make us happier, calmer and more creative. They should be an integral part of a classroom environment. At Wimbledon High, we are fortunate already to have a committed Eco Team, Blog and Gardening Club. Let’s bring plants within reach of all teachers and learners.

Top tips for introducing plants to the classroom:

  • Start with the most resilient species, such as sansevieria (snake plant), spathiphyllum (peace lily) and chlorophytum comosum (spider plant).
  • Make sure that there is a suitable spot for your chosen species, taking into account temperature, levels of light and humidity.
  • Appoint one or two students to take the lead in plant care and establish a weekly routine of watering.
  • Invite students to bring in their own plants.

[1]Lee, M. et al. (2015) Interaction with indoor plants may reduce psychological and physiological stress by suppressing autonomic nervous system activity in young adults: a randomized crossover study.

[2] Park, S. and Mattson, H. (2009) Ornamental indoor plants in hospital rooms enhanced health outcomes of patients recovering from surgery.

[3] Bowman, C. et al. (2019) The Biophilic Classroom Study.

Does sharing your passion for your subject enhance teaching and learning?

Clare Duncan, Deputy Head Academic, looks at the impact sharing passion for your subject can have on learning outcomes and STEAM.  

‘Education is not the filling of a bucket, but the lighting of a fire’ W.B Yeats 

I’m guessing that most, if not every, teacher came into the profession, not because they had a love of assessment and report writing, but because they had a passion for something – whether that be the writing of W.B. Yeats or, in my case, the beauty of the Fibonacci sequence. I find it fascinating that such a simple recurrence sequence, where each subsequent number is the sum of the previous two numbers, is found so often in the natural world. The sunflower seed formation – from the centre outwards, of 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13… and so on – is one such stunning example.  

As educators, we have the envious position of having a captive audience on whom to unleash our enthusiasms. As teachers we are always reflecting, always thinking of ways not just to impart knowledge but also to spark pupils’ interest in our subject. By demonstrating passion and curiosity ourselves we allow pupils to do the same – surely a worthy aim in itself, particularly if we want them to become lifelong learners. 

Even more than this, students modelling your behaviour can assist them in their next steps. It’s clear that the university applications that achieve the greatest success are those in which students demonstrate their deep enthusiasm for the subject, whether through their personal statement or at interview. In a recent Telegraph article about the application process, Peter Claus, the new access fellow for Oxford, discussed this idea:

‘Naturally we’re crazy about our subjects as tutors – so we look for people of equal fervour. Demonstrating independent intellectual fervour around your subject is much more important than any Duke of Edinburgh awards. We need to see that students have gone above and beyond and are aware of the culture of their subject.’ 

Our own Sixth Form Review reinforces that what teachers say and how they say it is hugely important, particularly in terms of the expertise and interest they themselves demonstrate. One student commented:  ‘(it’s) impressive when teachers know their stuff‘ and described taking the time after such a lesson to ‘let things sink in’.

So my tips for teachers to think about would be to:  

  1. Impart your passion to your students. By showing your excitement you may ignite it in them. 
  2. Find resources that fuel your passion and allow you to show them what excites you about your subject. (For me one such example is the BBC’s More or Less1 where the presenter explains – and sometimes debunks – the numbers and statistics used in political debate, the news and everyday life.) 
  3. Don’t underestimate the power of interdisciplinary learning. It is at the heart of our STEAM+ agenda. The best way to help reinforce a student’s passion is to show them that it can be applied to, and enriched by, multiple subjects.  

And why is instilling passion in students important? Here are words of Sara Briggs.  

‘When students are passionately engaged in their learning – when they are mesmerized by their learning environment or activities – there are myriad responses in their brains making connections and building schema that simply would not occur without that passion or emotion.’ 2 

So what will I be adding to my lesson plans this Autumn? The Year 13 Further Maths students will be introduced to the beauty of the catenary curve and how it can be modelled in using hyperbolic functions.


1. BBC More or Less:

2. S. Briggs, ’25 ways to institute passion-based learning in the classroom’, 2013. Originally published on

What progress has been made this year towards creating a diverse curriculum at WHS?

WHS Classroom

Miss Emily Anderson, Head of History at WHS, evaluates the progress of the diversity in the curriculum working party since September, and reflects on our next steps.

It has been both a challenge and a privilege to have been leading the working party examining diversity in the curriculum since the Autumn Term. Ensuring that our curriculum is fit for purpose in both empowering our students to be active citizens of the world in which they live, and reflecting both their identities and those they will live and work alongside in their local, national and global communities could not be a more vital part of our work as teachers, individually, in departments and as part of the whole school. Such a curriculum would simultaneously support our students and ensure they feel that they belong in the WHS community, and would empower them to understand and champion diversity in their lives beyond school. The curriculum is not a fixed entity, and the constant re-evaluation of it is one of, to my mind, the most challenging and important parts of our professional lives as teachers.

As members of the school community will be aware from his letters and assemblies, in the autumn Deputy Head Pastoral Ben Turner asked staff, as part of our commitment to systemic change, to scrutinise three different areas of our work as a school in order to better inform our future direction. Alongside our scrutiny of the curriculum, colleagues have been looking at our recruitment of students and staff and how we reach out to a broader and more diverse range of communities, and at our work with our students beyond the curriculum, in our pastoral, super-curricular and extra-curricular contexts.

WHS Partnerships

Examining the curriculum were staff from the arts, sciences and humanities, bringing a variety of perspectives. I wanted to make an ambitious but absolutely necessary distinction from the outset – that we cannot approach the curriculum by diversifying what is already there, but need to create a curriculum that is inherently diverse. We discussed the need to broaden our collective understanding of different identities (the GDST’s Undivided work has been very valuable in this regard), and to model open, honest and often difficult dialogue. The difficulties of the process of change were also considered, especially the transition from an old to a new curriculum, and the fear of being labelled knee-jerk or tokenistic until it became embedded and normal. This is, however, no excuse for not trying. Doing nothing is not an option. Three areas for evaluation emerged for us to take to departments:

  1. The day-to day – teachers’ understanding about different types of diversity, our use of language and resources in the classroom, encouraging more challenging and reflective discussions in the classroom.
  2. The medium term – creating a diverse curriculum at WHS – looking again at KS3, and evaluating our choices at KS4 and KS5 to identify more diverse lines of enquiry or exemplars in existing specifications, or opportunities to move to other boards.
  3. The bigger picture – joining the growing national conversation with exam boards to make changes to GCSEs and A Levels to better reflect diverse identities, critically evaluating the cultural assumptions and frameworks through which our knowledge is formed and which privilege certain identities over others, to problematise and ultimately change these in our teaching.

The reflections that came back from discussions at department level showed that much carefully considered planning is being undertaken across departments, in terms of the individuals whose voices are heard through study of their work, the enquiries that are planned to broaden our students’ horizons and the pedagogical implications of how we create an environment in which diverse identities can be recognised and understood.  

My own department (History) are completely reconceiving our curriculum. My colleague, Holly Beckwith, wrote a beautiful rationale for this in WimTeach last year which I would highly recommend reading.[1] We have been preparing for major curriculum change for a number of years, firstly through trialling experimental enquiries to pave the way, such as a new Y9 enquiry on different experiences of the First World War. Our choosing of a unit on the British Empire c1857-1967 at A Level – a unit whose framework could, if taught uncritically, be problematic in terms of what it privileges, but which enables us to at least explore, understand and challenge such power structures and give voice to some of the people it oppressed through the study of historical scholarship – also helps facilitate changes further down the school as it demands significant contextual knowledge about societies across the world before the age of European imperialism.[2] Now, we are in a position to put in place major and increasingly urgently needed changes for September 2021 at Year 7 and Year 10, which will lead to a transformed KS3 and KS4 curriculum over the next three years.

To pivot back to the whole-school context, I also met with student leaders from each year group who had collated ideas from their peers to feed back. These were wonderfully articulately and thoughtfully put, often critical, and unsurprisingly revealed a great appetite for change. As teachers and curriculum designers, there is a balance to be struck here between taking students’ views into account, and creating coherent and robust curricula where knowledge and conceptual thinking builds carefully as students progress up the school – areas of study cannot simply be swapped in and out. As I have alluded to above, for example we start sowing the seeds of contextual understanding for GCSE and A Level at Y7. Furthermore, this process will take time, as meaningful change always does, and so managing expectations is also something we must consider. In and of itself, modelling the process of systemic change is such a valuable lesson for our students so this must be seen as an opportunity to demonstrate this.

So far, this process of evaluation has prompted profound and necessary reflection by teachers not only on what we teach in the classroom, but on how our own understandings of our disciplines have been conditioned by our experiences and educations. As well as educating our students, we are also continually educating ourselves, often unlearning old ideas. There is still a significant way to go in creating the inherently diverse curriculum we are aiming for, and I look forward to continuing to challenge and be challenged as we work together as a community to, ultimately, try to do right by our students and our world.



[2] Akala, Natives, London, Two Roads, 2019; R. Gildea, Empires of the Mind: The Colonial Past and the Politics of the Present, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2019; P. Gopal, Insurgent Empire, London, Verso, 2019;

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.

Friday Gem #27 – start of term reflection on prior learning

Autumn Focus: Metacognition – students driving their own learning through reflection

Teaching and learning Gem #27 – start of term reflection on prior learning


This comes from Mary and Yvonne in Chemistry, who used digital RAG forms at the start of this term to help students reflect on their learning. This is such a great method to develop metacognition. Whilst we have done a Friday Gem on RAG forms before, I thought it would be useful to share how colleagues are using them to great effect with the current T&L focus.


  • In creating the Microsoft Form, Mary and Yvonne used statements from the specification to break down the topic (great for helping students’ mental schema about the topic)
  • They asked the students to complete the form after a holiday, allowing students to realise what has stuck in the long-term memory, and what has not.
  • This drew the students’ attention to the nature of memory, and the need for regular, spaced practice.
  • In rating their knowledge Red, Amber, Green, students were having to recall ideas and concepts and reflect on their own confidence.
  • As well as being a great metacognitive task for students, it also allowed for Mary and Yvonne to get really quick feedback about the class at a snapshot, but they could also zoom into the detail to see the confidence of individuals.
  • It has helped them plan for revision/interleaving/revisiting areas.


What did the students think of this?

“The girls said they found it really useful. They particularly liked it at the end of a topic with the spec statements as it really helped breakdown the content of the units and identify what they felt uncertain about when they had time to think about it. They advised me that they want me to do more and definitely at the end of units.”

Friday Gem #25 – harnessing the self-reflection of Motivational Maps and R&R

Autumn Focus: Metacognition – students driving their own learning through reflection

Teaching and learning Gem #25  – harnessing the self-reflection of Motivational Maps and R&R

This Friday Gem comes from Clare Duncan 

One clear example of student self-reflection is their termly Review and Reflection session, and none more so than this year with our holistic approach. Using the Motivational Maps tool, students completed a series of questions which generated a report detailing their top motivators. They reflected on what these motivators meant to them and how they could harness them to develop strategies for success in every aspect of school life: academics, co-curricular and friendships.  These thoughts were captured during R&R and their report has been transferred to their profile page on Firefly.

So how can we use these in our T&L to encourage students to take control of their learning and reflect on their progress?

Well, each student reflection was captured in a report on Firefly. If there is a student in your class who you feel is not connecting with your subject, why not look at their self-reflection and discuss with them their motivators: together, plan how the student can use those motivators to drive their progress in your subject.

By way of an example:

Take Ceri, her top motivator is a Director: she has a need for power and influence. Here is her reflection:

I am struggling with finding my feet in class and in the Sixth Form. This is particularly true in Politics and English as I feel that the more confident girls always speak over me and when I do say something; they challenge what I’ve said and I am unable to speak up or share my opinions.

Through Ceri articulating this, you and she can discuss and plan an approach to her having a voice. For example, giving her a lead role in an initiative, you will be addressing her motivational need. This is a great way of using a student’s self-refection to help them to flourish in your subject.

George Cook, explores ideas from The Culture Code (Daniel Coyle) and Radical Candor (Kim Scott)

George Cook, Head of Hockey at WHS, explores ideas from The Culture Code (Daniel Coyle) and Radical Candor (Kim Scott). These books show that it is less about the questions we ask, and more about the environment we create that enables us to ask them. Culture is everything.

Questioning is a hot topic in the world of education. What type of questioning do you use? What type of questioning should you be using?

There is no doubt that questioning allows us, as the teacher, to identify areas of strength and weakness in our classes. It gives opportunity to really challenge the most gifted, stretching and pushing the limits of their understanding. It is a great tool because in the same breath we can use questioning to give great confidence to those who are unsure or perhaps, normally, quieter and more reserved in lessons.

However, according to the two books listed above, the type of question you use and who you ask it to, is irrelevant if the environment we create is not quite right.

The Culture Code examines many high performing groups ranging from high end military task forces and airline pilots, to successful start-up companies as well as big hitters like Google. On the face of it, none of these groups have much in common. Apart from the culture they have developed, built on honest two-way communication and trust.

It was found that regular small snippets of communication within these high functioning groups allowed them to not only know each other better, but made sure they stayed on track throughout the task at hand to complete it in the most accurate and efficient way possible. The opposite of this in a classroom situation would be to wait for over an hour into a lesson before catching a pupil off guard with a challenging question to answer in front of their peers. Small and frequent two-way communication is much more effective.

Radical Candor states that if we are to have open and honest communication in our groups and teams then we must instil two key elements first. Firstly, care personally about all those in your class, and show it! As teachers we do this more often than we might expect and can be as simple as asking a pupil how their weekend was etc. The second element is to challenge directly. Challenge the beliefs of pupils directly, but also actively encourage them to do the same to us as this is more likely to build trusting relationships where more in depth and honest discussions and conversations can be had.

If we can take these lessons and implement them into our classroom and practical teaching, then we are far more likely to have open and lively debate and discussion that includes all members of the group and not just those that feel confident in the subject area. This is why I think the culture we build around questioning is equally important as the type of questions we use.

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