Teach Like Nobody’s Watching

My presentation at the 2018 ResearchEd National Conference was based on the conclusions I have reached about teaching after 15 years at the chalk face. There are three things I believe to be true.

  1. Teaching is essentially simple. What ever you want to teach you start with a recap of what they know about the issue at hand, you tell them or show them something, have them do it and then see how they get on and give feedback. That is about it.
  2. Doing this well is complex. There are many different way to recap something and some will work better than others. The same goes for every other stage. Learning how to do these things really well is where both experience and research can help.
  3. Teaching has become over complicated. Too often we aren’t able to get on with the simple business of teaching, or with discovering how to do these simple things well. Instead, we are given various hoops to jump through and advice that just muddies the water. In my time teaching, I have had countless initiatives imposed on my classroom. These have usually come from outside agencies or to appease them.

These are the slides from my presentation with a brief commenary below.

I am suggesting that we need to have faith in our professional ability to teach well and the confidence to ignore the complications. This confidence needs to be based on an excellent understanding of pedagogy and of our own disciplines.

It may be true to claim that “everything works somewhere” but that isn’t especially relevant. What we need to know is what is most likely to work most of the time. We need to look not just at what will work, but what will work best, as in both most effective and most efficient. There is no point in an approach to teaching that requires 25 hours a day and 8 days a week.

The Four Stages of Simple Teaching

We start a lesson  by recapping so that pupils recall previous learning from their long term memory. This retrieval of information strengthens this recall and makes the recall easier in the future.

We can go a step further though and get a second benefit from this recap – we can use it to recall previous learning that is relevant to what is being learnt next. This way we not only get the benefits of retrieval practice but also help to make the links between topics more explicit and so help develop their complex schema of our subject. It is easier to remember something when you realise you already know something about it.

After we recap we can move on to input – where new information is revealed or a new skill demonstrated. This could input could come from the teacher, the expert in the room, a video clip, a book or from another artifact.

We need to move away from the myth that pupils don’t remember what they hear but only what they do. This belief has meant that rather than working on our ability to explain well, we have just tried to limit how much teachers talk. We can explain well by preparing notes, drawing diagrams that support working memory and take advantage of dual-coding and by using anecdotes and stories.

Rosenshine shows that effective teachers talk for much more of a lesson than less effective ones. But this talk isn’t a lecture but includes meaningful questions to check understanding, modelling and worked examples. Thus kind of input needs careful planning.

The next step, application, is often the one that gets focused on during the planning of a lesson. It is the “task” or tasks that a pupil does. It is worth remembering that pupils learn what they think about. If your task involves them making lots of things (shanty towns, puppets, set designs) then I hope your objective is that they learn to make them and not the thing you think they represent.

It also needs to be remembered that rather than perfect, practice makes permanent. If pupils are practicing and making a mistake, that mistake is getting embedded. This is one reason that a clear explanation is so important. It is also why we need to circulate during this stage and look for procedural errors.

When we test a pupil we want to know if they know, understand and can do the things we think they know, understand and can do. We then need to address any gaps. The end of the lesson may be a poor place to check for this as you are likely to get mimicry rather than a test of real understanding. It may be better to wait for a future lesson and ask them to apply what you think they should know to a new situation.

We can give feedback in various ways. To the whole class based on common errors, by showing excellent examples and asking them to review their own work against it or in discussion 1-2-1. Written comments are rarely the best way to provide feedback to someone. They tend to be vague and generic (“explain more”) or very specific but then requiring them to make improvements they do not understand (if they knew how to do it, they would have done it).


Teaching does not need to be complicated. We need to reclaim our profession and start to teach like nobody’s watching.

Just a reminder that my first book, Making Every Geography Lesson Count is available for pre-order. It picks up on many of the ideas discussed in this presentation. The perfect present for the geography teacher in your life. If you don’t have a geography teacher in your life, this book would be a great way to get one 🙂

8 thoughts on “Teach Like Nobody’s Watching

  1. Pingback: Keeping teaching simple – KBA Teaching and Learning

  2. Pingback: Classroom ‘Direct Instruction’ Part I – The Review – Sam Hall

  3. Pingback: Classroom ‘Direct Instruction’ Part II – Input – Sam Hall

  4. Pingback: Teach like Nobody’s Watching – Carl's Blog

  5. Pingback: Lesson plans and planning lessons – a view through different eyes

  6. Pingback: Classroom ‘Direct Instruction’ Part III – The Inversion – Sam Hall

  7. Pingback: Classroom ‘Direct Instruction’ Part IV – The Application – Sam Hall

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