Evidence-based teaching and learning

Author: Andy Sammons
Published: 18/08/2020

Thankfully, we seem to be leaving behind the frameworks that judged teachers based on their use of lollipop sticks, mini-whiteboards and traffic lights; on this, I need to be clear – there’s nothing wrong with these things, but for me they represent style over substance. They are surface-level measures for things which are more complex – namely student learning!

Just as our friend the lollipop wasn’t the golden bullet, it isn’t satisfying to simply say that some teachers ‘have it’ and that ‘some don’t.’ I remember when I was training that there was almost a sense of a cult of the immense teachers that we had to aspire to become: they had reached the promised land of ‘Outstanding.’ Now, I see that for what it is: nonsense. Teaching is an incredibly human pursuit, and we are all imperfect beings. It stands to reason, then, that the best teachers are the ones that can acknowledge this and be honest with themselves and their students about all aspects of what is happening in their classrooms.

Ofsted’s recent emphasis on creating a meaningful and enriching curriculum for young people would hopefully indicate that things are moving in the right direction. It’s also encouraging to see that a number of schools are beginning to champion the notion that knowledge should be at the heart of everything we do in classrooms.

Evidence-based teaching offers us a way of making this achievable. What exactly does this mean though? In a nutshell, evidence-based teaching is teaching that has been found to improve students’ results. Prior to recent years, in many places, evidence-based teaching has not been underpinned with a clear enough understanding of the knowledge that is required in order to fully access the curriculum.

For me, when it comes down to it, good teaching has a number of commonalities wherever you are, and whatever the style of the teacher you are watching. Evidence-based teaching allows teachers to be honest with themselves about how to best move their students on, as well as offering students the platform to explore and understand their progress.

When looking at the material linked with this article, I’d really like you to hold in mind that learning has not happened if it isn’t in a student’s long-term memory. This was a transformational idea within my own practice. I’ve routinely had wonderful lessons that felt inspirational and thoroughly enjoyable, but when I have failed to check understanding later in the week or month, it’s been lost. For me, the core principle is to keep asking students to get their working memories (what they are attending to at that moment) communicating with their long-term memories. I believe there can be no question that this is the thing that unites the top 10 evidence-based strategies.

Evidence-based top 10: What does it look like in your classroom?

1. Own it

Be explicit and clear about the knowledge that your students need in order to succeed. This has been presented in various guises over the years, but in effect it’s about working backwards from your ‘end point’. In other words, think about the assessment and the ‘end point’ of a sequence of learning, and then reflect on the knowledge that is needed in order to be successful.

2. Chunk it

Don’t make assumptions about what your students know. The key is to think not only about the knowledge that is required to succeed, but the sequencing and chunking that will most effectively allow students to build their understanding.

3. Exemplify it

Whether it be a pre-constructed model or a live modelling, it’s crucial to be open and honest about what success looks like. Clarity is the key to allowing students to feel as if they are building towards a meaningful ‘end point’. Partially successful models can also provide useful opportunities for discussions.

4. Connect it

Whether it be thematic or more concrete links, it’s really important to allow students to see where what they are learning fits into the bigger picture. Being able to reflect on concepts, and how they may be similar or different to other things that have been encountered, is key to allowing students to really get to grips with the concepts in your subject.

5. Test it

Regular ‘low stakes’ testing is actually much more engaging than it might seem. Students love to recall and demonstrate what they’ve learned. This can be short tests, gap fills, or even unlabelled diagrams that ask students to explain processes, for example.

6. Draw it

This seems like an unusual suggestion, and I wasn’t convinced by it until I was asked at a conference to turn a quote into a diagram. I did, and you know what, I remembered it so much more effectively!

7. Purposeful practice

Following on from the ownership of the knowledge, it’s really important to offer students the chance to consciously put their learning into practice. I always talk to my students about staying away from ‘autopilot mode’; I insist that they should be thinking deeply about their work, and not just throwing things onto the page for the sake of it.

8. Be clear about strategy

When it comes to exam questions, it’s important to understand where the facts and knowledge end, and where the question strategy starts. In fact, trying to demonstrate how these two things relate will only enhance learning. In other words, ‘With this knowledge, applied with this strategy, you will be able to hit the assessment objectives because…’

9. Encourage student ownership

Time and time again, metacognition features in evidence-based teaching discussions. In the first instance, owning knowledge and success is vital, but it’s also vital to give students the chance to measure themselves against this to understand their progress.

10. Know when to step away

Probably the hardest one of all! I find it difficult to just stand back and observe sometimes. It might seem counterintuitive, but you will never truly know what’s been embedded in the long-term memory unless you give students the chance to show you!

Andy Sammons

Andy Sammons (@andy_samm) is a Head of English and the author of The Compassionate Teacher.