The Ritual of Teaching


Terry Pratchett’s novel Small Gods tells the story of what happens to Gods when people stop believing in them. The much diminished God Om is talking to his last remaining true believer, Brutha, and explaining to him how it comes that Gods die. He quotes the Discworld philosopher Abraxas.

“Around the Godde there forms a Shelle of prayers and Ceremonies and Buildings and Priestes and Authorities, until at Last the Godde dies. Ande this maye notte be noticed!”

He likens religion to a shellfish who builds up their shell until it gets so large that the animal cannot move and dies. The shell remains.

Without wishing to get all “Thought for the Day” I think we can see parallels in education. Something starts as a good idea, a lot of detritus builds up around it, the idea gets lost but some of the actions remain.

The Problem

Last week I wrote about a debate over whole class feedback – a lot of which seemed to stem from people confusing the format for the intention. I think we see a similar issue over Knowledge Organisers. The idea behind knowledge organisers is very simple – share with pupils what it is you expect them to know by the end of the topic so that they can use it for revision. As Jon Brunskill  pointed out in this piece we wrote together for TES, they can also be used to help teachers ensure they know exactly what they need to teach in a unit of work. Ideally they should be short, contain the absolute key, threshold information, and be very well organised to aid study. Most importantly, they should be used to support learning. And there are some incredible ones out there.

Many schools have jumped on this in a big way with teachers and departments being instructed to create knowledge organisers but with little discussion of what they are for. This has led to some people creating huge, multi-page booklets containing every last aspect of a topic. These get printed out, stuck in books and then… what? The thing has become a shell killing the original idea.

You can see it too around Assessment for Learning. It is interesting to see the originator of the term (the High Priest and Prophet Dylan Wiliam) discuss AfL today and the way it has been used and abused. The idea was always very simple, that assessment should lead to a response. It should inform the teacher and the student and lead to a change. Instead it became the structure of mini-white boards, dialogic marking, pupil friendly criteria, diagnostic testing and more summative assessment. He says now that he wishes he had called it “responsive teaching” but sadly I suspect the same thing would have happened. Rituals would have grown up, the idea would have died and we wouldn’t have noticed.

There are many things in the classroom that we have been directed to do despite the purpose being lost. The idea that “pupils should know the purpose of the lesson” has become “write the learning objectives”. Lessons have to begin with a “do it now” (once called a starter) because… well, just because. The idea that we want to know whether pupils have learnt something became the ritual “do a plenary 5 minutes before the end of the lesson” because, I assume, it takes 55 minutes to learn absolutely anything.

The Cause

I think part of the issue is that engagement with genuine continuing professional development (CPD) has been so poor. Someone comes into the school on an INSET day, or an assistant head who has been on a course stands up, and talks at teachers for 60 minutes about a new initiative that they may or may not have fully understood themselves, and then someone else pops up to talk about something else. The idea becomes passed on in a garbled way, people are told to do something and are then checked up on to ensure they are doing it. Teachers therefore go away and go through the motions of doing the thing in case anyone is looking (This religion analogy really writes itself…) rather than because they think it will improve teaching and learning.

The Solution 

The solution, I think, is to strip away the rituals, melt the gold chalices, whitewash the walls and to start again. Get a fresh piece of paper. Write what you want pupils to know, understand and be able to do; and then work back from that. Ignore everything you have been taught about lesson structures and how you should teach and focus instead on what you know works.

Think about the purpose of each and everything you do in that lesson. What are you hoping to achieve? You have your own experience to draw on as well as the experience of others who have stopped to give it some thought. I would suggest starting with the phenomenal Making Every Lesson Count.


In many schools teachers are given lists of “non-negotiables”, of things they have to do and show that they are doing. Many of these things started as an excellent idea but the idea has become surrounded by rules about how something should be done and the idea itself is lost. The solution is to teach like nobody’s watching and to have the confidence in what you know works. Tear away the shell and see what is inside.

7 thoughts on “The Ritual of Teaching

  1. I agree that part of the solution is “to strip away the rituals, melt the gold chalices, whitewash the walls and to start again”, but I find the suggestion to “have the confidence in what you know works” rather problematic, because the confidence may be misguided, and ‘what works’ is context-sensitive. I think the ritualistic approach to ELT can only be addressed via teacher education (rather than training).

    For a more detailed discussion, see here:


    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Everything Now: why we need to resist the urge to implement all that is new | must do better…

  3. I wrote my first article on this – the ritualisation of practice. It’s cargo cult teaching.

    I took exception to Black and Wiliam’s assertion that teachers could not take up general principles unless they were presented with a series of tools. What happened with AfL is that it became a series of imposed rituals like ‘two stars and a wish’ or it was hijacked for other purposes not to do with feedback (APP). DW has stuck to his original statement and clarified what they meant, but I still think it was a mistake. If teachers can’t interpret the principles, then a set of gimmicks, divorced from their original intent, aren’t going to help.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. ‘The solution is to teach like nobody’s watching…’

    That’s all well and good, but what if you are being watched? Experienced, skilled, ‘reliable’ teachers tend to get left alone to do their job – so managers can focus on the ‘weak’ teachers. So this advice, whilst true, unhelpfully boils down to ‘be good at your job… and you can get better at your job’. We need answers (insights? principles? strategies?) which work for ALL teachers.

    Great article though.

    Liked by 1 person

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