24 October 2014

10 Silver Arrows: Ideas to penetrate the armour of ingrained practice

Filed in Teaching and Learning

Silver Arrows? It’s very hard to change your practice.  We’re all so busy, very often it is difficult to create space to fully explore a set of ideas and to deliberately adapt our teaching routines to absorb something new.  At the same time, we’re often…

10 Silver Arrows: Ideas to penetrate the armour of ingrained practice


One arrow, aimed at the right place…..that’s all it takes.

Silver Arrows?

It’s very hard to change your practice.  We’re all so busy, very often it is difficult to create space to fully explore a set of ideas and to deliberately adapt our teaching routines to absorb something new.  At the same time, we’re often bombarded with initiatives and issues to address.  It can be overwhelming.  I’ve been thinking about the possibility of stripping down each initiative or development area to something very simple; one idea that captures the spirit of a wider set of strategies.  This would be the thing where you could say if you do just one thing, do this.  A Silver Arrow is one that you allow to penetrate your armour; it changes what you routinely do.

There isn’t a definitive research-informed list; I’m presenting a set of ideas that I think make good Silver Arrow contenders based on my own teaching.   You will have your own set of arrows that carry that message: if you do just one thing, do this.  Here is mine:

1. Behaviour Management: Signal. Pause. Insist. 

Effective classroom management is multi-faceted but if you can do this, you can do anything.   A class is full of students talking – on entry or after an activity or discussion:

  • Signal:  You give the agreed signal for attention
  • Pause: You wait, adopting an assertive stance and position in the room, scanning for eye contact;
  • Insist:  You insist on full attention.  Michael…Suki… I need you looking this way and listening. ….Thanks. 

You now give the instruction or direction you want to give.  You do not do anything until you have full attention; you expect it, you insist upon it, so it happens.  Signal. Pause. Insist.

(A Bill Rogers Top 10 Behaviour Strategies)

2. Questioning: ‘In your pairs, discuss’ + dialogue

Instead of ‘hands up’, you ask students to discuss their answers in pairs for a short period and then you call individuals to respond, reporting back on their discussion.   You then engage in a dialogue with the respondent, exchanging three or four responses to probe more deeply.

  • What were you saying in your pair? (Reporting back a rehearsed answer or state of confusion)
  • Why do you think that might be the right answer?
  • Can you link that to what James said earlier?
  • Does that happen all the time or just in this case?   And so on.

(The Washing Hands of learning: Think, Pair, Share)

3. Literacy: ‘Say it again properly’; saying it is a rehearsal for writing it. 

The whole-school literacy strategy could be reduced to this:  Every time students give a verbal answer and before they are asked to write anything,   ask them to re-form their intial responses into well-constructed sentences using the key words and phrases you’ve discussed.  Do it relentlessly, every time.

What does the graph tell us?

  • First attempt:  It goes up. 
  • Second attempt:  The speed on impact increases as the mass of the trolley increases. 

4. Marking and Feedback: Close the gap.   

Think about all marking and feedback as a short plan of action. Once you regard marking as a plan for the feedback a student will act upon and nothing more, it helps to keep it in perspective and have more impact.  Only give feedback at the level and frequency that it is practical to be acted upon.  This needs to be linked to giving time for redrafting and for acting on feedback during lessons, as well as for homework – directed improvement and reflection time or DIRT.

Three related posts: Marking in Perspective; Close the Gap marking; Improving the basics

5. Straight teaching: Objectives, explain, model, practice, check    

I find this a useful model; it helps to make sure you’ve taught something properly.

  • Objectives: You know exactly which ideas you want to explore.  The more precise the better.
  • Explain: You walk through the ideas and explain them using models, analogies and examples.
  • Model:  You show your students how to apply the learning to a question or problem, modelling the strategies.
  • Practice: Students now try a few problems themselves; they test out their understanding.
  • Check:  You use a range of feedback strategies to find out how they got on, adjusting the next cycle accordingly.  Importantly, you need to be ready to diverge; some student will get it and will want to move on; some will need more consolidation.

Objectives, Explain, Model, Practice, Check.  Each step is important.

Great Lessons 6: Explaining     Learning objectives vs Tasks

6. Assessment:  Set lots of tests – formatively. 

Repeat after me:  Tests are good.  Once you embrace this idea, your students will shoot forward.  Tests help with recall, developing long-term memory and serve a great way to tell you how well you have taught something.  Micro-tests, self-assessed tests, multiple choice tests and single question long-answer tests all help to flush out misconceptions, areas of weak understanding – and develop memory.   Take time to go over them, making sure that students learn from their mistakes.

Formative use of summative tests.

7. Gifted and Able: Teach to the top:

There are lots of strategies, but the Silver Arrow is the disposition: A total philosophy of G&T.  Use assessment data to identify your three highest performing students.  Imagine that their parents are hawkish and demanding; they (rightly) expect nothing but the best for their children.  Do everything in your power to make them love you because their children are stretched and engaged – always.  If you do that, the thing is – everyone’s a winner.  You are a winner, the top-end students are winners and – here is the clincher – everyone in the class is a winner too.  Teach to the Top and everyone benefits.

8. Homework as Guided Study: “You are not doing it for me; you are doing it for yourself”

That is one of my all-time favourite teacher-clichés. Homework is Guided Study.  You are giving students the tools to learn to study independently.  They are doing this for themselves and not for you.  That helps to put all kinds of things into perspective: the nature of the tasks; the resources you provide and expectations in relation to marking.   As well as questions for practice and consolidation, activities such as pre-learning, making notes and research are all valid, helpful homework tasks.  Activities that link into the next lesson are useful too – everyone brings in work that forms the starting point for the lesson.  The key thing is to make sure students have the tools they need once they leave your classroom.

Great teachers set great homework

9. Hard Work: 10 minutes of silence.

Learning does not flow from engagement; engagement flows from learning.  That’s a good message to hold on to.  Sometimes, after a whole series of activities and discussions, you just need students to get on with some work on their own.  10 minutes of silence is a great way to create an atmosphere of hard-working, heads-down endeavour.  It’s almost a treat after all the noise of a classroom exchange.   You are making hard work a positive experience by showing students how much progress they make in a short focused burst.  Crucially, the silence has to be a warm, peaceful silence; not the silence of discipline and dread.

Pedagogy Postcard #4: Working in Silence

10. Creative Opportunities:  for open-endedness, respond in any format

To mix things up a bit and to give students some scope for making decisions about their learning, I like the open-format response strategy.  If you have done some research, explored some ideas or finished a topic, it can generate fantastic responses if you ask students to capture their learning in any format they like:  an essay, a Powerpoint presentation, a website, a video, a booklet, a  3-D artefact – whatever they like.  This leads to a lovely range of responses that can be shared in different ways.  There’s nothing worse than a class of Powerpoint to schlep through – but the open format method usually yields enough variety to make it possible to see everything.

Students can explore a range of creative ideas to communicate their learning, learning some technical media skills in the process.   Often I find that students need reassurance – Am I allowed to make a website?  Yes, of course!  You need to make sure the content is given due weight – it needs to be a rigorous piece of work.  It helps to show them last year’s stunning exemplars.

Give them permission to do whatever they like – but ask them to dazzle you.

Please add your own Silver Arrows in the comments below….

Thanks to @EducatingMiss for creating this infographic summarising this post:


Click to download.

  • Brian Hays
    Posted at 07:52h, 24 October

    Great list, Tom. I’d also add, stick to your seating plan and on entering the classroom children should have something purposeful to get on with…responding to a question on the marking, improving their DIRT work etc. I use a Trivium 3 Part lesson plan and this forms part of the grammar section.

    • Ian White
      Posted at 09:21h, 04 January

      Seating plans for learning I think should also be dynamic, students should move from time to time, as well as for different activities – a seating plan that stays the same all year is not a seating plan for learning

  • teachingbattleground
    Posted at 10:22h, 24 October

    Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

  • magnus4444
    Posted at 19:17h, 24 October

    Share the love: don’t let the end of lessons be a rushed panic all the time where you teach right up to the bell in a desperate bid to ‘fill your vessels’. Use a couple of minutes at the end to share something you’re enthused about in your subject – a poem, an article, a discovery, a picture, a tricky problem – whatever it is… “Education is not the filling of a pail, it is the lighting of a fire.” It’s not just theirs you’re lighting either, it’s your own you’re stoking…

    • paulgmoss
      Posted at 18:57h, 29 November

      i often hear this notion, of the lighting of a fire. I disagree, because students naturally and innately want to learn. The fire is already lit. The crime is when an education puts it out. Start at that point!

  • nancy
    Posted at 21:06h, 24 October

    Give your children a real context for their learning.
    This is, I think, easier in primary, but a very powerful tool, if you can harness it.

  • BekBlayton
    Posted at 07:11h, 25 October

    Great list – one that works for primary and secondary. Thanks!

  • Tim Taylor
    Posted at 12:35h, 25 October

    Reblogged this on Primary Blogging.

  • academictrust
    Posted at 16:39h, 26 October

    Reblogged this on academictrust and commented:
    A great ‘top ten’ of teaching and learning strategies.

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  • Dr David Cameron (@David_Cameron76)
    Posted at 12:12h, 30 October

    *semi-facetious comment warning*
    Something about the example ‘the speed on impact increases as the mass of the trolley increases’ didn’t ring true. I’ve just taken a straw poll around the education department of the Institute of Physics and we think that you might mean ‘the average force on impact…’ Or perhaps ‘the impulse of the wall on the trolley on impact…’ Or even ‘the average rate of change in momentum of the trolley on impact…’ How’s that for precision in scientific literacy??

    There’s nothing like a group pedantic physicists with time on their hands.
    But then, I’m a history graduate so what do I know?

    Great list BTW

    • Tom Sherrington
      Posted at 16:06h, 30 October

      Aha.. I was thinking of the effect of mass in relation to friction so heavier trolleys accelerate faster. The theoretical case were accn is independent of mass doesn’t work in practice and students can see an upward trend. Love a bit of physics pedantry! 😉

      • Tom Sherrington
        Posted at 16:08h, 30 October

        From an experiment with trolleys on a slope hitting a target.

  • Patricia Kokkinos
    Posted at 13:45h, 01 November

    Reblogged this on #TeachGeog and commented:
    A great list of teaching and learning strategies.

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    Posted at 11:07h, 03 November

    Reblogged this on Making Our Best Better.

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    Reblogged this on NOA Great Teaching .

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  • david sims
    Posted at 18:13h, 21 November

    From time to time plan for maximum impact in the final 10/15 minutes of the lesson (i.e. the ‘plenary’). I think we often concentrate on an effective start + the main activities students will carry out. It’s a nice alternative when planning lessons to really focus on what you want to happen in the last 10 minutes and let the rest feed into that.

  • paulgmoss
    Posted at 19:11h, 29 November

    ‘The key thing is to make sure students have the tools they need once they leave your classroom.’ Indeed. As such, i think an important addition to the list is the creation of a learning culture in the classroom where students are challenged to arrive at answers with as little teacher influence as possible. Constructivist approaches seem to be incredibly powerful in terms of learning effectiveness, and tend to intrinsically motivate students. How teachers set up tasks, questions they ask, wait time, knowing when to step in, are all key considerations for a teacher wanting to create a culture of challenge and curiosity in their classroom. What do you think Tom?

  • Estelle Ash
    Posted at 22:57h, 30 November

    Read aloud to our classes on a regular basis – a story, poem, article, extract… A simple suggestion for a silver arrow but perhaps we could do more of this with all year groups. Model the love of reading and open up your students to something they may not choose to read independently.

    • Tom Sherrington
      Posted at 00:18h, 01 December

      Yes – I like this one! In fact, reading aloud in general is a definite contender.

  • Maths Tyn
    Posted at 20:03h, 01 December

    Control your door – always be at it between lessons and make it clear it’s your territory. Pick up on any uniform infraction or negative attitude before they enter. Always be at it at the end of lessons; no one touches my door handle but me.
    Respect pupils time. Never be late to lessons and if you are, apologise and tell them why. Never hold them after the bell – they are busy people too.

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  • Abigail Mann
    Posted at 10:10h, 04 January

    A great read, thank you!

    I’m going to focus on guided homework a little more this term. I have set homework in the past that leads into the next lesson and this has worked really well as students see a real purpose to it.

    I also like to give students some control over the organisational aspects of their classroom. They decide (from a list provided) what goes on displays and which resources/props they would like to use to aid their learning. They feel the space is their own. As a result, I frequently have students turning up early to offer help and set up the classroom (usually KS4!)

    Thanks for the useful tips!

  • Greg McClarey
    Posted at 22:22h, 05 January

    Dear Tom, we had a very productive hour today during our training day today based on this article. Ten members of staff delivered their own personal take on “If you do just one thing do this”. Thank you for providing the inspiration. Best wishes Greg

    • Tom Sherrington
      Posted at 22:46h, 05 January

      Sounds great Greg. Thanks for letting me know. Tom

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    Posted at 10:40h, 25 May

    Teach to the top -imagine the parents.

    I might add teach to the top but be mindful of how this impacts on your students with SEN. Are they accessing this in a meaningful way – would you parents of the children with SEN also be happy? I argue that if you get SEN right; you get help all (including the top).
    Great blog – I agree with the whole school literacy point – expand verbally then write.

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    Posted at 11:24h, 06 September

    Model. Used to be a cliched term when I trained but if the students see you attempt the same question as them in the same time they can see the impossible is possible. I model poor responses on purpose so that they can see what not to do, and then they tell me what should have done, effectively coaching me, and they write an improved version. Equally I model top mark responses and then we all ‘colour in’. Colouring in the different sections of their writing to see which aspect of their paragraph structures need fleshing out or reducing down. Sometimes this takes a whole lesson or I use it as an extended plenary to demonstrate to the students that they have moved to a different place from where they were at the beginning of the lesson.

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    Testing is good but not always (but still needed for the same reasons explained by Tom). When you’re teaching a class with low confidence (maybe in a PRU) use of quizes provides the same information you need to scaffold and feedback and it feels more like fun. Start with whole class versus teacher then gradually reduce into smaller and smaller teams – high challenge low threat. Similar strategies can be applied in many different ways but you maintain the teaching to the top principle.

  • @moodybill
    Posted at 21:56h, 27 November

    Great list thanks. I tutor individuals in small groups now rather than teach class and to agree with other comments here, seating is important. Our sessions are set up with the minor theatre of a restaurant table setting in mind: each student has their name on the screen and a selection of work laid out on the table. As the students enter they know they are welcome and already prepped for; we try to make them feel special about the session. Perhaps a touch of kidology but I enjoy it too!

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