Have we got teaching all wrong?

3rd February 2017 at 00:00
Traditional teaching methods may actually be preventing learning lift-off
In an exclusive preview of her new book, Ark Schools’ head of assessment, Daisy Christodoulou, argues that many accepted beliefs in schools about how children learn are not supported by research – and much existing practice can actually be detrimental

In England, there is some consensus around the final aims of education. Literacy and numeracy are clearly vital skills that pupils need to be able to function in a modern economy and society. As well as these, developing skills such as critical thinking and problem-solving is often agreed to be important.

However, while there may be some agreement on these aims, there is more controversy regarding the best methods that will achieve them.

It is possible to summarise two broad approaches that schools could take to develop a student’s skills.

One approach, which we will call a generic skill method, is to teach skills directly. If you want pupils to learn how to read, get them to read real books. If you want them to be good at solving maths problems, get them to solve maths problems. If you want them to think critically, set up activities and tasks that will give them the opportunity to think critically.

The best way to impart such skills is to teach them more indirectly

In practice, such approaches might involve an element of project-based learning, where lessons are organised around skills such as problem-solving, communication or critical thinking, rather than subject categories.

An alternative approach, which we’ll call a deliberate practice method, argues that the best way to impart such skills is to teach them more indirectly. While skills such as literacy, numeracy, problem-solving and critical thinking are still the end point of education, this does not mean that pupils always need to be practising such skills in their final format.

Instead, the role of the teacher, and indeed the various parts of the education system, should be to break down such skills into their component parts and to teach those instead. This means that lessons may look very different from the final skill they are hoping to instil.

The generic skill approach has a great deal of support within education, but it is based on an understanding of skill that doesn’t take into account research from the past 50 years about how we think and solve problems. These kinds of generic skill lessons are not actually effective at instilling the skills they claim to, because they misinterpret skill as something that is generic, when, in fact, skill is specific.

Research from cognitive psychology shows that the kinds of skills and competencies listed at the start of this article are not, in fact, separate and discrete abilities that can be taught generically and transferred easily. Skills such as problem-solving and critical thinking – and even the ability to learn itself – are dependent on large bodies of domain-specific knowledge, and they are not easily transferable to different domains.

A pupil can be good at problem-solving when faced with a set of historical sources, but bad at problem-solving when faced with a maths equation. A pupil can analyse the causes of the First World War, but still not be able to analyse the causes of the English Civil War. Even reading, which feels like an obvious transferable skill, is actually dependent on background knowledge and vocabulary. An English graduate might easily understand a poem they have never seen before – but they might not be able to fully comprehend the instructions in a photocopier manual.

It is true that project-based, generic skill lessons allow pupils the chance to practise. And it is also true that practice is absolutely vital for skill development. However, while practice is vital for skill development, not all practice is equally important or effective. The type of practice that is most effective at developing skill is very specific and focused, and does not involve the broader and more complex activities recommended by the generic skill model.

Deliberate practice

The foremost researcher on practice is K Anders Ericsson, professor of psychology at Florida State University. He has shown that the best way to develop skill is through what he terms “deliberate practice”. He defines deliberate practice as “a highly structured activity, the explicit goal of which is to improve performance…Specific tasks are invented to overcome weaknesses, and performance is carefully monitored to provide cues for ways to improve it further”.

Ericsson draws a distinction between work, or performance, and deliberate practice. Work activities offer some opportunities for learning, but these opportunities are restricted because of the focus on performance. Deliberate practice, on the other hand, is designed with learning in mind.

He cites the following scenario as an example of the differences between the two.

“Let us briefly illustrate the differences between work and deliberate practice. During a three-hour baseball game, a batter may get only five to 15 pitches (perhaps one or two relevant to a particular weakness), whereas during optimal practice of the same duration, a batter working with a dedicated pitcher has several hundred batting opportunities, where this weakness can be systematically explored.”

Ericsson has shown that this distinction between deliberate practice and performance holds across a number of fields. Skill is developed not by practising performances or final tasks, but by practising much narrower and more specific tasks.


Baseball batters do not practise by playing games over and over and over again. Concert musicians do not practise by doing and redoing performance pieces. Footballers don’t practise by playing 11-a-side games, but by doing passing drills and playing in small-sided games, which are different to the final performance. Chess players don’t practise by playing entire games, but by studying decomposed problems, and textbook openings and endings.

This type of deliberate practice respects the limits of working memory and allows the learner to direct all of their attention on one specific aspect of performance. And this kind of focus is what enables feedback to be most effective.

Compare the feedback that a baseball player could receive in Ericsson’s deliberate practice example with the feedback they might receive in a game situation. In the deliberate practice example, the baseball batter can ask for a series of pitches that target a particular weakness. They can receive immediate feedback from the pitcher and from their own observation, and can react to that feedback immediately, too.

The practice of a profession is not the same as learning to practise the profession

In a game situation, the baseball batter will receive a variety of different pitches. They may or may not self-diagnose a particular weakness when facing a particular type of pitch, and they will almost certainly not have the opportunity to act on that feedback while in the game situation. Game situations do not offer the potential for diagnosis or improvement that practice situations do because they place such a burden on our limited working memory.

Of course, in order to distinguish between the type of practice that helps learning and the type that doesn’t, we need to be clear about exactly what learning is and how it is different from performance.

Learning can be defined as a change in long-term memory, and the aims of learning and performance are different. Performance depends on the detailed, knowledge-rich mental models stored in long-term memory. The aim of performance is to use those mental models. The aim of learning is to create them. The activities that create such models often don’t look like the performance itself. In the words of Kirschner, Sweller and Clark, “the practice of a profession is not the same as learning to practise the profession”.

The generic skill method of instruction is based on the idea that practising the final, complex, authentic skill will help pupils to get better. Take, for example, the following lesson, praised by Ofsted because it features a realistic writers’ meeting:

“The meeting was a remarkably successful and realistic one, taking on all the elements of the kind of writers’ meeting that you might get as part of a real television or radio soap opera.”

If we consider this in the light of the research above, its realism becomes not a point in its favour, but a point against it. Copying what experts do is not actually a good way of becoming an expert. The dominant generic skill model of instruction is based on the flawed premise that practising the final skill will improve the final skill. In actual fact, not only are such activities not the best way of developing the final skill, but also in many cases they are actually counter-productive.

Chicken and egg

Paradoxically, methods of teaching that ask pupils to do real and complex tasks will prevent pupils from developing the mental models that they need to actually be able to solve those real and complex tasks. Pupils will be caught in a chicken-and-egg scenario: unable to solve complex problems because they do not have the necessary models, but unable to develop those models because they spend all of their time attempting to solve complex problems.

We hope that telling pupils to “look at an issue from both sides” or “look for countervailing evidence” will lead to them actually being able to do so. But as the cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham notes: “If you remind a student to ‘look at an issue from multiple perspectives’ often enough, he will learn that he ought to do so, but if he doesn’t know much about an issue, he can’t think about it from multiple perspectives.”

Giving pupils advice and feedback like this is accurate but not helpful, descriptive but not analytic, summative but not formative. However, as long as we subscribe to the generic skill model of teaching, then such feedback will be all that is possible. Only when we accept it is possible for complex skills to be broken down into smaller chunks will more precise, specific and, therefore, helpful feedback be possible.

If the generic skill model does not actually help to develop skill, what model would help? In the context of sport, Dylan Wiliam, emeritus professor of educational assessment at the UCL Institute of Education, suggests the following:

“The coach has to design a series of activities that will move athletes from their current state to the goal state. Often coaches will take a complex activity, such as the double play in baseball, and break it down into a series of components, each of which needs to be practised until fluency is reached, and then the components are assembled together. Not only does the coach have a clear notion of quality (the well-executed double play), he also understands the anatomy of quality; he is able to see the high-quality performance as being composed of a series of elements that can be broken down into a developmental sequence for the athlete. This skill of being able to break down a long learning journey – from where the student is right now to where she needs to be – into a series of small steps takes years for even the most capable coaches to develop.”

Wiliam goes on to describe this process as creating a “model of progression”.

How would this work in education? What do “models of progression” look like in common school subjects? There are a number of educational approaches that take into account much of the research presented above, and that have consequently had a great deal of success. Perhaps one of the most successful approaches is direct instruction, described by the educationalist John Hattie, director of Melbourne Education Research Institute at the University of Melbourne, as follows:

“In a nutshell: the teacher decides the learning intentions and success criteria, makes them transparent to the students, demonstrates them by modelling, evaluates if they understand what they have been told by checking for understanding, and retelling them what they have been told by tying it all together with closure.”

Copying what experts do is not actually a good way of becoming an expert

Some specific direct instruction programmes have been developed by Siegfried Englemann, an American educationalist. One of them, Expressive Writing, offers an interesting contrast to the kinds of English lessons praised by Ofsted, such as that mentioned earlier. Whereas “good” lessons generally tended to involve pupils doing lots of writing, Expressive Writing breaks down the skill of writing into a number of quite small and specific tasks, and then gets pupils to practise those over and over again in different contexts. It has a specific and clearly detailed model of progression, similar to that of the baseball coach Wiliam refers to above.


For example, the very early activities require pupils to replace a present tense verb with a past tense one. There are many activities on rewriting sentences so that the use of pronouns is consistent and unambiguous. There are others on avoiding run-on sentences, while at the end of each lesson, there is a structured writing activity that asks pupils to apply the lessons they have learned earlier on.

The way that the final skill is decomposed into small constituent parts is consistent with the deliberate practice approach outlined above. All the research shows that Englemann’s programmes – and direct instruction approaches more generally – are much more effective than the generic skill approach.

In conclusion, the research about skill development shows us that, in order to develop skill, we need lots of specific knowledge and lots of deliberate practice at using that knowledge.

There is no catch-all, all-purpose generic ability we can acquire. Specific detail is what matters. It is perhaps for this reason that direct instruction has been described as being about “attention to picky, picky detail”. Attention to such detail can feel pedantic and even irrelevant, but it is crucial.

Daisy Christodoulou is head of assessment at Ark Schools. She tweets as @daisychristo

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