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 (mindful.org) 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

http://whs-blogs.co.uk/teaching/tag/mfl/ https://www.teachertoolkit.co.uk/ https://reflectingenglish.wordpress.com/2014/06/12/memory-platforms/ https://teacherhead.com/ https://www.mindful.org/a-mindfulness-practice-for-doing-one-thing-at-a-time/ https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/14/magazine/the-great-ai-awakening.html https://www.economist.com/technology-quarterly/2017-05-01/language

How can we enable the quieter learners in the classroom?

Wayne Eaves, teacher of Geography and advocate of coaching, looks at the importance of recognising the significant value of the quieter learner and the opportunities they offer to the wider classroom. In a world of constant stimulation and talk, where verbal contribution is too often used as a means of assessing pupil progress, it is vital that teachers reflect on their own classroom practice and ensure that ‘quiet’ is a positive and valued attribute.

The Power of Introversion

Much debate among educationalists followed the publication of Susan Cain’s book ‘Quiet-The Power of Introversion in a World That Can’t Stop Talking’ and her call to move away from the cultural bias towards extroverts in schools by creating introvert-friendly learning environments and recognising the ‘invisible’ student. Counter arguments, championed by Jessica Lahey in Atlantic magazine, maintained that to achieve success in today’s world, it is imperative that students are coerced through grades, based on verbal participation and teacher expectations, to take an active and vocal part in class.

Western culture certainly appears to present and value extroversion as an asset while disparaging introversion as an affliction or flaw. However, in other cultures silence is a sign of deep respect and is more highly valued than talk/discussion. The stereotypical description of the extrovert as Act-Think-Act, and the introvert as Think-Act-Think is rarely helpful since in reality (especially the classroom) a whole spectrum of introversion and extroversion exists. The aim must surely be to incorporate and celebrate the approaches of all learners.

To me, Lahey’s advocacy for grading classroom participation ignores the ‘value of quiet’ and the myriad of other ways that students take part in lessons. These might include the silent assent they give to ideas in their body language and eye contact or the way they make thoughtful and insightful notes for a future essay. The absence of talk must not be assumed to indicate an absence of engagement with learning nor undervalue the student’s role in the classroom.


“The absence of talk must not be assumed to indicate an absence of engagement with learning”

The modern classroom with its focus on active and collaborative learning, exciting technology, group work and discussion can all too often ignore the needs of the quiet learner and indeed actively hinder their learning. As Cain points out, the extrovert draws energy from social interaction while the introvert draws energy from internal reflection and quiet time and may easily become drained by non-stop interaction with others.

The Inclusive Classroom

How can the classroom teacher adapt their teaching to meet the needs of all their learners? A variety of strategies can help the confidence of all students:

  • Offer the discussion questions in advance by pre-circulating the issues that you plan to talk about in the next lesson.
  • Ensure that sufficient waiting or thinking time is always given before an answer is expected, giving both the reflective student and the ‘instant responder’ time to think their answers through.
  • Think-Pair-Share – gives the quiet learner the chance to reflect on their answer, discuss it with one peer which may well then encourage them to share with the rest of the class.
  • Ensure that every lesson contains some time for deep thinking and quiet study. It has been noted that in US schools where verbal confidence is valued at least as highly as quiet work that achievement in many schools is falling behind their international peers. A short session of silent, meaningful work, also allows the extroverts in a class to develop and hone new and valuable skills.
  • Social media, used well by the teacher can give the quieter learner a boost. A discussion blog allows them to become involved in the conversation and get their ideas validated by others, thus building confidence.
  • Be creative with the classroom, if space allows have both group work zones and individual desks. At break time designate a semi-quiet space for the quiet learners where they can recharge after time spent with lots of other people.

Introverts Dilemma
Introverts Dilemma

Figure 1: ‘How to care for Introverts/Extroverts’– The Introvert’s Dilemma (blog)

Although quieter students may need some adjustments to be made in the learning environment, the benefits that they contribute to the classroom are considerable. They naturally bring an element of mindfulness to a lesson and, given the opportunity, present new ideas and perspectives which enrich the learning and experience of others. It is their fellow students and their teachers’ duty to listen to them. When she was asked what inspired her to write her book Cain likened introverts today to women at the dawn of the feminist movement—second-class citizens with gigantic amounts of untapped talent. As her book concludes, ‘our culture rightly admires risk-takers but in today’s world we need the heed-takers more than ever’.

Further reading

Cain, S. Quiet : The Power of Introversion in a World That Can’t Stop Talking’. Crown Publishing Group, 2012

Cain, S. The Power of Introverts, podcast, TED talks Feb 2012


Lahey J.  ‘Introverted Kids need to Learn to Speak up at School‘, The Atlantic, Feb 2013


Schultz, K. Rethinking Classroom Participation: Listening to Silent Voices. Teachers College Press. 2009

Author- unattributed ‘Introverts – Extroverts: ‘It’s not about shyness, It’s about honouring and making ways to participate’ TILT, (web blog) 2012-13


Does the Harkness Method improve our understanding of Maths?

Elena and Amelia, Y12 Further Mathematicians, explore how the Harkness Method has opened up a new way of thinking about Pure Maths and how it allows them to enhance their mathematical abilities.

For Further Maths A Level, the Maths department has picked a new style of teaching: the Harkness Method. It involves learning by working through problem sets. The problems give clues as to how to get to the answer and this is better than stating the rules and giving examples; we have to work them out ourselves. These problem sets are given for homework, and then we discuss them together during the next lesson by writing the answers on the board and comparing our results with each other.


At the beginning of term, I found it quite challenging to complete exercises without knowing what rules I was expected to apply to the problems, as each question seemed to be completely different to the one preceding it. The tasks also require us to use our previous GCSE knowledge and try to extend it ourselves through trial and error and by applying it to different situations and problems. I found it difficult to understand how to apply a method to solve different problems as previously each problem came with a defined method.

Maths diagrams As the lessons progressed, I started enjoying this method of teaching as it allowed me to understand not only how each formula and rule had come to be, but also how to derive them and prove them myself – something which I find incredibly satisfying. I also particularly like the fact that a specific problem set will test me on many topics. This means that I am constantly practising every topic and so am less likely to forget it. Also, if I get stuck, I can easily move on to the next question.

Furthermore, not only do I improve my problem-solving skills with every problem sheet I complete, I also see how the other girls in my class think about each problem and so see how each question can be approached in more than one way to get the same answer – there is no set way of thinking for a problem.

This is what I love about maths: that there are many ways of solving a problem. Overall, I have grown to like and understand how the Harkness Method aims to challenge and extend my maths skills, and how it has made me improve the way I think of maths problems.


When I first started the Harkness approach for Pure Maths in September, I remember feeling rather sceptical about it as it was unlike any method of learning I had encountered before. To begin with, I found it slightly challenging to answer the questions without knowing what topic they were leading to and found confusing how each sheet contained a mixture of topics.

However, I gradually began to like this as it meant I could easily move on and still complete most of the homework, something which you cannot do with the normal method of teaching. Moreover, I found it extremely beneficial to learn the different topics gradually over many lessons as I think that this improved my understanding, for example for differentiation we learnt it from first principles which gave me the opportunity to comprehend how it actually works instead of merely just remembering how to do it.

Furthermore, I think that the best part of the Harkness Method is that you are learning many topics at a time which means that you cannot forget them as compared to in the normal method which I remember finding difficult when it came to revision for GCSEs as I had forgotten the topics I learnt at the beginning of Year 10. I also began to enjoy the sheets more and more because the majority of the questions are more like problem-solving which I have always found very enjoyable and helpful as it means you have to think of what you need to use instead of the question just simply telling you.

Moreover, I very much enjoyed seeing how other people completed the questions as they would often have other methods, which I found far easier than the way I had used. The other benefit of the lesson being in more like a discussion is that it has often felt like having multiple teachers as my fellow class member have all been able to explain the topics to me. I have found this very useful as I am in a small class of only five however, I certainly think that the method would not work as well in larger classes.

Although I have found the Harkness method very good for Pure Maths, I definitely think that it would work far less well for other parts of maths such as statistics. This is because I think that statistics is more about learning rules many of which you cannot learn gradually.

A trip to הארץ (the land)

By Keith Cawsey, Head of RS.

Having been at Wimbledon High School for a whopping twelve years (how did that happen?), I was due a sabbatical. My first stop was Israel. 

I first visited Jerusalem in the January of 2000 and was keen to see what had changed and what had stayed the same. I was also interested in visiting a few places and museums that I have taught about since qualifying as a teacher, but never actually visited.

My first stop was to the Western Wall. Often called the ‘Wailing Wall’, it is best known by the Jewish community as ‘the Kotel’ (literally, The Wall). This is the only part of the original temple that was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD. Indeed, it is part of a supporting wall of that temple and is the most sacred place visited by the Jewish community today. To the left of the wall itself, is an arch – Wilson’s Arch – where the faithful were praying and a discussion on the Talmud was taking place.

At school, I lead the annual trip for students in Year 10 – Year 13 to Poland, where we visit Auschwitz concentration camp and Oskar Schindler’s factory. When he died, Oskar Schindler asked to be buried in Jerusalem, facing the Mount of Olives and his grave is visited by millions each year. On my second day, I searched for his grave. In a way, it was closing a circle. I had visited his factory in Poland, listened to many Schindler survivor testimonies and, of course, watched the film. Here was my opportunity to pay tribute to that awe-inspiring man, who saved so many. His grave had stones placed on top of it, a Jewish tradition to honour the dead. Later in the week, I visited Yad Vashem, the Israeli memorial to the Shoah (Holocaust) and saw his tree planted in the ‘Avenue of the Righteous’ – a row of trees placed in memory of all the non–Jews who helped save the lives of Jewish people during the Shoah.

Starting in the Muslim quarter on the third day, I walked down the ‘Via Dolorosa’ – a road that traditionally Jesus walked down on his way from being sentenced by Pontius Pilate, to his crucifixion. Each of the fourteen stations is marked by a number and many have churches or chapels where you can pause and reflect on the Passion of Christ. The last four stations are to be found in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre – a church traditionally built on Golgotha, where Jesus was crucified. You can also see the place where Jesus was laid out after his crucifixion and the tomb where, according to tradition, Jesus was placed after his death and subsequently rose from the dead. Rudolf Otto used the word ‘numinous’ to explain that feeling of holiness and of the almighty and in this church. It was all around me.

Later that week, I queued very early in the morning to climb up to the area of the Temple Mount (Har Habayit in Hebrew). This is the place where the Jewish Temple once stood and is traditionally is the site where Abraham demonstrated his devotion to God by almost sacrificing his son Isaac. Today, the Al-Aqsa Mosque stands on the site as the rock that the mosque is built around is traditionally the place of Muhammad’s ascent to heaven during his night journey in the 7th Century CE. The view of Jerusalem and the vastness of the site itself was remarkable. The site of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, some say, was once the ‘Holy of Holies’ of the Jewish temple and, as a result, praying by Jews on this site today is not allowed as they may be treading on sacred ground; only Muslims are allowed into the mosque itself to protect the sanctity of the building.

In Jerusalem, my final visit was to Yad Vashem, the Israeli memorial to the Shoah. The building itself cuts dramatically through the countryside as visitors are led past the Avenue of the Righteous through to the main museum. Here, there is a chronological display of how the Shoah unfolded between 1933 – 1945 as well as focussing on what happened to the Jewish community afterwards. The Hall of Remembrance has an eternal light and a list of all the concentration camps written into the floor – a fitting memorial to the six million Jews murdered in Nazi Germany. A time to reflect on the past, but also a time to pray that we all have a responsibility to ensure that such an event must never happen again.

The last couple of days of my trip were in Jaffa – a port just outside Tel Aviv. It is connected to a great character of the Old Testament – Jonah – sent by God to deliver bad news to the people of Nineveh. He tried to hide from God, but God had other ideas and taught him, and us, a valuable lesson.

I leave you with a Jewish toast – ‘L’Chaim’, which is Hebrew for ‘To life’.


By Alex Farrer, Scientist in Residence.

Since the launch of our STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Maths) space in September, STEAM lessons, activities, clubs and assemblies have been delivered by the new Scientist in Residence team. This has created a buzz of curiosity around the school and enabled “STEAM” to be injected into the curriculum, but what is exactly going on, and why?

It is frequently reported in the press that thousands of additional science and engineering graduates are needed each year and many national initiatives aim to encourage more girls to aspire to such careers. However it is still the case that most pupils decide by the age of 10 that science is “not for them”. They enjoy science, they are good at science, but they think that other people become scientists and engineers. The STEAM initiative aims to encourage more girls to aspire to study science, technology, art and mathematics subjects post 16, but also to develop STEAM skills in all pupils. Not every pupil will aspire to a career in science and engineering, but every pupil will benefit from added exposure to STEAM. Employers and universities are increasingly looking for candidates who have problem solving skills, consider the impact of their decisions, use their imagination, communicate well, work well in teams and cope with frustrations, problems and difficulties. Cross curricular STEAM activities not only help to develop these skills for every pupil, but also show how relevant the subjects of science, technology, engineering and mathematics are to all subjects.

More information is available here about the ASPIRES and ASPIRES 2 studies which track the development of young people’s science and career aspirations and also here about the benefits of keeping options open for possible engineering careers.

This new initiative at Wimbledon High aims to promote STEAM cross curricular activity for all year groups from Reception to Year 13. The Scientist in Residence team consists of experts in computer science, medicine and STEAM teaching and learning, who are able to plan activities that are practical, challenging, engaging and linked to real life situations. Visiting engineers and scientists enrich the projects and links are made to STEAM careers. In the lessons things might go wrong, groups may have to start all over again, team members might disagree and tasks may be really difficult to succeed in. Coping with the epic fails that can occur when imaginatively attempting to solve a STEAM challenge is all part of the benefit though, and there is also a lot of laughter and fun. The lessons can certainly be classed as “serious play”!

These are just a few examples showing how STEAM is beginning to form…

Year 3 launching projectiles ‘Into the Woods” 
• KS3 being creative with Minecraft Education Edition
• Year 7 using their physics knowledge to capture amazing light and colour photographs at the beginning of their art topic
• Year 6 learning about sensors and coding with micro:bits
• Year 1 becoming rocketeers
• Year 7 creating pigments for Joseph’s technicolor dreamcoat in R.S.
• KS3 gaining medical insights into the Black Death in History
• KS3 pupils designing and building a City of Tomorrow
• Year 5 designing ocean grabbers inspired by the R.S.S. Sir David Attenborough
• Year 4 controlling machines built with LEGO WeDo

Year 12 are also beginning a joint project with local schools and scientists from UCL and Imperial College as part of the ORBYTS initiative – Original Research By Young Twinkle Students – an exciting project using mass spectrometry to look at exoplanet atmospheres which includes the opportunity for students to be co-authors on an academic paper. There may even be a robot orchestra in the making, so there is certainly a variety of STEAM forming!

What all of these activities have in common is that they aim to promote STEAM dialogue around the school. The year 6 academic committee have been putting intriguing photographs with an attached question around the school to promote just this sort of discussion, whether it might be year 8 on their way into lunch or parents chatting while waiting to pick up year 2.




What happened here?




We want to show students and adults in our community that STEAM is something done by us all. As an adult yourself you may have felt in the “not for me” category – you might have given up science early, or not felt that it was your best subject. As role models we all need to show that we are interested in talking and getting involved in STEAM, so that no one in our community is in the “not for me” category. Helping with a competition entry, discussing Blue Planet 2, using STEAM news articles or photos as hooks for lessons, all help to inject STEAM into the school community.

Follow us on Twitter @STEAM_WHS to see more of what is going on and look out for future blogs on the importance of building science capital and using STEAM photos to inspire and engage. The following web links are examples of the many cross curricular ideas available for all age groups that could be used in lessons and at home. Create some STEAM!






The long and winding road: how factual recall tests can effectively support linear examination courses

Wimbledon High History

By Emily Anderson, Head of History.

Think back, if you can, to your own History studies at school, whether these were months, years or perhaps decades ago. For most, the content covered becomes, over time, increasingly hard to recall. My current grasp of the French Revolution, for example, which I studied at AS Level, is embarrassingly basic now, almost 15 years later, as it is something I have rarely had need to revisit. At Parents’ Evening, parents smile wryly at vague memories of the Corn Laws or the Spinning Jenny (not meaning to undermine their importance, but their ubiquity in the collective memory of British adults is truly extraordinary) and voice envy at the breadth of opportunities available in the current History curriculum.

Instead, it is the broad conceptual understanding of, say, the nature of power, as well as the skills that remain, and these which lie at the heart of the purpose of History education for our department here at WHS. Empowering our students to participate in the academic discourse of History is our core aim, to enable them to engage critically with the world around them in their future lives. It is, however, impossible to participate in this discourse without what has been termed ‘fingertip knowledge’ as well as more conceptual ‘residual knowledge’: to secure meaningful progress in History, both need to be developed (Counsell, 2000). As argued recently in Teaching History where dialogue around cognitive psychology is increasingly evident, ‘fluent access to a range of types of knowledge is what enables historians to participate in some of the more sophisticated forms of historical discourse’ (Fordham, 2017).

Recent changes to A Levels (AL) have brought how we secure this fingertip knowledge into focus. The nature of the new linear exams mean there is more demand for a greater volume of content to be retained over a longer period of time. The importance of detail is evident both from reviewing past papers and from our experience in examining at AL last summer.

To approach this, we reflected on our experience of nurturing fingertip as well as residual knowledge at GCSE, where the linear model is, of course, long established, as is our practice of setting factual recall tests at the end of each topic. Our evaluation of the latter is below:

Advantages Disadvantages

It is classic retrieval practice, which results in stronger storage and retrieval strength (Fordham, 2017).

It encourages an extra stage of revision early in the course before more high stakes testing kicks in for mocks and terminal exams, reducing the pressure on Year 11.

It helps lead to great results (above 75% A* in the past three years).

Our tests were much too challenging – becoming notorious amongst our students and sapping morale.

They were no longer fit for purpose – pupils would never need to recall such specific detail, especially after the reform of the CIE IGCSE Paper 4 in 2015 which removed such questions.


Therefore, we have changed the structure of our tests to open ended questions. At IGCSE these are in the style of 4 mark recall questions. At AL I am experimenting with questions taking the form ‘cite two pieces of evidence which could be used to support an argument that…’, or similar. To try to tackle the issue of relevant but vague answers, I have awarded bonus marks at AL for detail to encourage both a conscious choice in selecting evidence (as pointed out by Foster & Gadd (2013)) and in-depth revision. All are now out of a uniform mark – 20 – to encourage comparison across topics and at different stages of the two years.

Furthermore, we have used the new AL structure to rethink when we test, in order to support maximum recall over the two years. Here, we currently have two approaches: retaining end of topic testing at GCSE in order to keep the advantages identified above, but utilising spaced tests at AL (the benefits of which are argued by, amongst others, Laffin (2016) and Fordham (2017)) by revising and testing existing knowledge on a topic before the next stage of it is covered. This lends itself particularly well to the unit on the British Empire from c1857-1967: in the past few weeks, my Year 13 class have sat tests on the increasing independence of the Dominions and on India, both in the period from c1867-1918, before studying inter-war developments. Students then complete their own corrections, consolidating the learning and identifying areas for development. During the revision period at AL, they can also undertake the same test several times citing different evidence. My 2017 cohort had, at their own suggestion, a star chart to record how many times they had undertaken a test for each area of the course, broadening their evidence base each time.

Whilst I hope that this gives a snapshot of the department’s current and very fledgling thinking, I would be mortified if it was taken to show that we are overly focussed on factual recall testing in the department. We are not. Tests of course never can and never will be the ‘be all and end all’ in terms of assessing student progress, but approaching them critically can only be a good thing.

References and further reading

Counsell, C. (2000). Historical knowledge and skills: a distracting dichotomy . In James Arthur and Robert Phillips, Issues in history teaching (pp. 54-71). London: Routledge.

Fordham, M. (2017). Thinking makes it so: cognitive psychology and history teaching. Teaching History, 166, 37-43.

Foster, R., & Gadd, S. (2013). Let’s play Supermarket ‘Evidential’ Sweep: developing students’ awareness of the need to select evidence. Teaching History, 152, 24-29.

Laffin, D. (2016). Learning to like linear? Some ideas for successful introduction of the new A Levels. Historical Association Conference workshop.

Developing WIMlevels and a new model of assessment

By Paul Murphy, Deputy Head Academic.

Perhaps Plato’s desire to ensure an expert mariner sails the ship in which you travel is a more striking illustration for the need to appoint and trust experts to do their business than pointing out that when it comes to how children learn, it is the teacher who is best placed to deliver students from the metaphorical storms they must weather. Although applying a gentle rhetorical massage to a critique of the character of democracy in the Peloponnese during the fourth century BCE is probably poor soil from which to begin an explanation of how Wimbledon High School has re-visited its own model of education, assessment and academic support, it captures the essence of our basic approach; in lieu of an accessible, clear and viable set of examination criteria and grade-boundaries (which in any case differentiate, rather than provide a guide for how to educate), we as a common room turned to each other, to pedagogical expertise and to our (extensive) experience to decide how to best support our girls throughout their time on Mansel Road.

Cherie Blair, a champion (albeit self-proclaimed) of the under-educated, noted in a speech on the subject that “someone with 4 A grades at A-Level from [a famous Public School] may look good on paper…but push a bit harder and often you get the impression they have learned to pass exams rather than think for themselves”. Although I risk (and indeed am being) highly reductive, it is my firm belief that learning to pass examinations, although a valuable skill (the most valuable in terms of future earnings, beside inheritance), really only teaches you do to precisely that, pass examinations. To consider the Junior perspective, SATS do not help GCSEs, which in turn offer little skill-based progression to A-Level alone. Data shows us that students who do well at GCSE tend to take well to A-Level. This does not mean GCSE is a good preparation to take the higher discipline; both are differentiating measures, and so it is likely doing well at one measure of capacity and intellect will see you do well at another. The same is true of the jump from A Level to Degree, at least in terms of skills (I should note that some studies do link outstanding A Level performance to 1st class degrees and that I, of course, write generally and for emphasis). Examinations do prove that learning has occurred, and are a basic requirement of universities and employers, so we had them keenly in our focus as we developed our model, but they were certainly not the focal-point. Outstanding examination results are intended to be the happy by-product of focussed, considered and subject-specific and synoptic education (not the oxymoron it might at first appear).

My (internal) starting point when opening discussions with Heads of Department and Staff was the work of Piaget (now a rather unfashionable educational philosopher, despite his respected grounding in child psychology). Piaget found, in 1920, that children’s power of reasoning was not flawed after all. In areas where children lacked life experience as a point of reference, they logically used their imagination to compensate. He additionally concluded that factual knowledge should not be equated with intelligence and “good” decision-making.

Over the course of his six-decade career in child psychology, Piaget also identified four stages of mental development. “Formal operations,” the fourth and final stage, involves 12-to-15-year-olds forming the ability to think abstractly with more complex understandings of logic and cause and effect. This is when he considered (and later theorists have not successfully, in my view, challenged this developmental stage) the brain at its most plastic in terms of learning beyond mere knowledge (though, of course, as I noted above, he felt knowledge was still essential for positive outcomes). I was keen therefore that our system of assessment, our schemes of work, our developmental model, should be more consciously building undergraduate skills, concepts and modes of working from Year 7. There were, of course, many of these elements in existing assessment models and schemes of work, but we needed greater clarity and accuracy (and indeed conviction) about what such skills were, and how they could be developed, taught and assessed over a seven-year period, in each subject discipline (until our education system’s conception of subjects as disparate areas of studies subsides, subject-specific skills will be the way of thinks in the United Kingdom).

So, the first step was to communally identify our goals, which was relatively straightforward. In a meeting with a key team of HoDs and SMT members, we thrashed out the key aims we would like to use to frame our assessment policy. Of course like all good discussions, concordat was neither complete nor decisive (and like all chairs of such discussions, I am conscious my own starting point will have coloured the outcome), as our thoughts will be subject to change and amendment as greater understanding comes forward. We settled on two themes; that our key idea would be the pursuit of scholarship, with an “end-goal” of providing every student will the tools and skills to thrive at a top university, conservatoire or other tertiary institution (our context precludes the immediate focus of work at 18 for most), and that each department would draft their own set of progressive criteria, describing in detail the “threshold-concepts” that demonstrate the distinctive steps in understand each subject more fully and completely, and using their extensive experience to explain to parents, girls and themselves, what these moments were, which skills a girl was currently able to use, and which they were working to next on the ladder to becoming a capable undergraduate. As such, the skills required in Year 7 had to be mindful of ensuring the skills required at University were developing in the right way, and our highest “progress levels” are beyond the requirements of GCSE and A-Level respectively.

A good “threshold-concept” example (elaborated for all HoDs in a session we held with Ian Warwick, an educational-consultant who focusses on the academic development of highly able pupils) is the moment at which a student of English Literature first recognises that the characters are fabrications, and that the author deliberately writes to create and develop them. Without this step, analysing literature is at best comprehending the narrative of a story, with it, a world of opportunity opens. We tasked all HoDs to work with their departments, to find all such steps and progressions which students undergo during their secondary and further education, and to stage these progressions in a table which demonstrated them. An example is below (English Literature), at Appendix A. A note must be made here to the elasticity and dedication of the staff involved in the development process; to hold this close a micro-scope to your methods of assessment is difficult and challenging in the current political climate, where examination pressure can so easily trump educational goals.

A two-year process was devised for the development of these threshold concept progress tables, with a view to the new model being adopted in Years 7-10 from September 2017, and the whole school from September 2018. The first part of the model has been drafted and implemented, with our first (internal) reporting assessment scheduled in October. The model has broken progress down into these threshold concepts further and skills progressions, with separate descriptors for “skills” and “concepts and ideas”, so that girls, parents and teachers can all clearly identify and track the progress of a student with accuracy and confidence, whilst also showing students what they need to do next in order to progress. The rationale for a dual-descriptor approach (see again Appendix A) was based in both practical evidence (a similar model is already in use, and has proven very successful, at the flagship Westminster Harris Sixth Form) and educative and psychological theory, where the ability to understand and the ability to do remain distinct concepts (see Naglieri, Goldstein or notably Brooks (in Psychology Today)) that require acknowledgement, assessment and explanation in their own right. Each threshold has been standardised using internal moderation, cross-reference with standards in the reformed GCSEs being undertaken in various subjects (our A Level draft is pending) and also, by heavily relying on the pedagogical knowledge and experience of the Wimbledon High staff. Departmental meetings remain the epicentre of good teaching and learning, and it is from them, in combination with educational theory, that this system was devised.

The system has also sought to allow departments the freedom to devise schemes of work in a way which encourages subject-specific skills to subsist at the core of our academic offering. The model moves away from collective assessment weeks and towards a fluid style of assessment, where teachers’ overall opinions of a pupils’ progress are combined with punctuated and careful written assessment that allow pupils to display and develop skills beyond those expected for their age-range, without sacrificing the need for clear, identifiable points of progress. MidYIS (despite its inaccuracies it remains the best available base-line data from a test scenario) forms the basis of our initial projections for pupil progress on our scale, but it is by no means the main driver over time, as yearly pupil targets will be clear, fluid, subject specific and, most importantly, highly individual.  Progress up our various “WimLevels” will be tracked half-termly, without the need for cumbersome reporting systems, and we hope that it will focus our girls on the simplest goal in self-improvement: which step must I take next to get better? Our Assistant Head, Performance, devised a specific flight path for each girl’s projected progress both intra-year and year-on-year, which can be amended based on achievement should the demon MidYIS be proven a too miserly tool.

The finished product means that all girls, parents and staff will receive a clear, robust message about the skills they have developed and concepts they have learned, every half-term, and in every subject. It will inform scheme of work planning, assessment, intervention, tracking and teaching, setting our goals as classroom practitioners based on mastery and excellent of the subjects we are teaching, with fantastic examinations results little more than a by-product which proves that we are ensuring our girls are always learning and developing academically in the best possible way.

Mr Paul Murphy

Deputy Head (Academic)

19th October 2017