Greater Depth Standard – KS2 Moderation

Worried about greater depth writing for KS2 moderation?

Here’s some advice on the statements, independent writing, what can prevent achieving the GD standard, and what to look for when assessing writing at that level.

Before we start, here are the criteria for working at a greater depth level. I find it best to think of them all as connected.

Statement 1:

  • Does the writing achieve what it sets out to do and does it do it consistently throughout?
  • Is there autonomy from the pupil? Have they used stuff they have been taught and from their own reading?
  • The writing should be convincing from start to finish, whatever the intention.

Be careful not to overscaffold – their writing must always be independent.

Keep these criteria in mind:

Statement 2:

  • Language choice is dictated by the purpose and audience they are writing for.
  • Which tone/register is appropriate for this?
  • ‘Speech and writing’ – it doesn’t mean always using speech, just that they know the difference.

Statements 2 & 3 are linked. Hard to achieve one without the other:

  • Formality is a continuum – very formal to very informal. Control of it comes from linking it to purpose/audience (statement 1).
  • Statement 3 refers to ‘shift’ – pupils must evidence how to write in both formal and informal contexts, as well as contexts that lie between them on the continuum.

Statement 4:

  • How does their use of punctuation help them achieve statement 1?
  • Punctuation should provide clarity for the reader and prevent ambiguity.

Certain things can prevent a pupil from achieving GD:
– Errors/omissions (i.e. using a piece of punctuation incorrectly a few times)

– Repetitive vocabulary (not for effect)

– Mismatched language and context (e.g. using slang in a formal letter of complaint)

– Weakness in tense/verb form

– Commas affecting clarity

– Repetitive/predictable clause structure

This is not an exhaustive list.

Lastly, when assessing their writing, consider these two questions:

Consider this when assessing:

– Is writing accurate? (e.g. language choice for context, use of punctuation)

– Does the pupil use complex language/sentence structure? (varies structure, uses different verb forms appropriate to style of writing)

STA talk about whether something *undermines* the overall impact of their writing. Keep that in mind when assessing – that’s where your feedback needs to lie.


Writing a Personal Statement for any job in a School

I have seen quite a few people looking for advice on this topic recently. This has been repurposed from an old blog – https://mrmorgsthoughts.wordpress.com/2021/03/31/guide-to-slt-applications/

I have written countless personal statements over the years for a variety of roles. I have also been on the other side of the interview process, reading over 100 personal statements from candidates. Below is the advice I would provide based on my experience. This blog will go through how to write a personal statement and then provide an example at the bottom that follows this approach.

The hardest and most time-consuming part of any application is the personal statement. Each job person specification generally tends to include these criteria: qualifications; experience; knowledge and skills; and personal characteristics or qualities. I find it best to present your personal statement under these subheadings or whichever subheadings are used in the person spec. You must write the personal statement in response to the person specification laid out in the job advert (it’s just like essays at university – there is a specific style to how they’re written).

Some schools go even further than just subheadings and bullet points, breaking each criterion down into essential and desirable points.

Essential meaning that without meeting these criteria, you’re unlikely to get an interview (e.g. at least 5 years teaching experience or experience in whole school improvement). You must meet and include all the essential criteria in your application with examples. That being said, if you meet all the essential criteria bar one or two, I suggest you still apply (depending on what the criterion is).

View desirable criteria as a chance to set yourself above other candidates. You can show that not only do you meet the essential criteria, but you meet a lot of the desirable criteria too, so look to include them where possible.

I repeat: you must write the personal statement in response to the person specification laid out in the job advert. Some schools also ask you to respond to the job description too; I think it is best to do both just to be safe, but the person specification is an absolute must. You must respond to all criteria in the person spec and provide examples to demonstrate how you meet them.

Here is an example of a criterion from a person spec:

Good knowledge of the National Curriculum and statutory testing.

Here is an example of a poor personal statement referencing that criterion in their application:

I have good knowledge of the National Curriculum and statutory testing because I was curriculum and assessment lead.

While being a curriculum and assessment lead is certainly helpful here, the candidate has not provided any examples of how that role and experience provided them with ‘good knowledge’. This person spec is asking the candidate to demonstrate their good knowledge of the curriculum and statutory testing through examples.

Here is a better example of a personal statement doing just that:

Having taught in four different year groups, including the end of both key stages, I possess good knowledge of the National Curriculum and statutory testing. While I was curriculum lead, I developed the maths and history curricula for the whole school in line with the National Curriculum. I also supported subject leads in developing their specific subject curricula. As a reading SATs marker and assessment lead, my knowledge of statutory testing and assessment is stronger than average. I have used this knowledge to deliver INSETs on assessment and to coach other staff on best practice.

Notice how the paragraph started by specifically referring to the criterion from the person specification (the part in bold – I would advise actually writing this out in bold so it is easy to spot in your statement).

It then followed with examples of how the candidate met that criterion (i.e. the candidate has good knowledge of the curriculum because they have written curricula and supported others in doing so + the candidate has good knowledge of statutory testing because of their roles and they have even supported others using this knowledge). While not perfect, this example is infinitely better than the previous one. If you don’t include examples, don’t expect an interview. There will be other candidates who meet all, if not most, of the criteria so you must think carefully about how you do too.

The ‘criterion-then-example’ approach is a simple and sure-fire way to write a personal statement. Think of the person specification as a checklist that the headteacher will be going through and ticking off as they read your personal statement. With the example above, the headteacher will be looking to see if the candidate has ‘good knowledge of curriculum and statutory testing’ and will find it easily because it has been signposted.

Personally, I lay out the personal statement with each paragraph responding to just one criterion with examples. I then go onto the next paragraph and repeat. It makes it clear and easy to read for the headteacher. By using the same language of the criteria from the person spec, the personal statement becomes much easier to assess.

During a school visit, you should try to gather information about the school to refer to in your personal statement. Here are some made up examples of things noticed during a school visit that are then referred to in a personal statement. In bold is the information learnt during the visit, which is then followed each time by how the candidate can support the school:

  • “…I noticed during my visit that the school has two NQTs starting in September. I have mentored NQTs in the past and I have significant experience in coaching early career teachers. I would be happy to dedicate some of my time to developing and supporting these NQTs.”
  • During my visit, you mentioned writing is an area for development across the school. Having been an English lead and writing moderator, I am confident that I can support the school in not only improving the teaching and learning of writing, but also the assessment of it.”

To save a lot of time, my advice would be to write a generic personal statement that you could use to apply to any school. Once you have visited a prospective school and studied their job advert, go back and edit your generic personal statement to make it more bespoke to the school you’re applying for.

For example, here is a generic paragraph about a candidate’s knowledge of behaviour management that could go in any personal statement:

‘Behaviour management is dependent on consistency and upholding the school’s behaviour policy. I believe that good behaviour is a precondition for successful learning. Like all aspects of learning, behaviour must be modelled appropriately for pupils. I am of the opinion that modelling the correct behaviour and having high expectations will lead to successful learning.’

Here is the same paragraph edited once a specific school is being applied for. The bits in bold are specific to the school:

Behaviour management is dependent on consistency and upholding the school’s behaviour policy and, in (school name’s) case, the values you have displayed on the posters in each classroom. I believe that good behaviour is a precondition for successful learning. Like all aspects of learning, behaviour must be modelled appropriately for pupils. I am of the opinion that modelling the correct behaviour and having high expectations will lead to successful learning. I wholeheartedly agree with the statement in the job advert about how we must have high expectations, so that all children can achieve their full potential’.

This isn’t a world-beating example, but you catch my drift. You take your generic statement and weave in bits from your school visit and the job advert where possible. By having a generic personal statement prepared, you will save yourself hours if you end up applying for multiple roles.

Tip – When talking about whole school improvement, try to use ‘we’ instead of ‘I’ where possible. School-wide change is a collaborative action; using ‘I’ too much implies you see yourself as solely responsible for the change.

Tip – Schools often have a motto and it will likely be referred to somewhere in the job advert or application pack. If you can, refer to the motto in your personal statement, showing how you agree with it or can contribute to its implementation. Not a must, but it may help you stand out a little.

If you want to listen to more advice, I talk about everything above and more on this podcast – https://twitter.com/Kieran_M_Ed/status/1644611864020541442

If you want advice on a personal statement you have written, reach out to me on Twitter – @MorgsEd

The example personal statement below was for a DHT post, but it demonstrates the general approach that can be used for any role. You will notice the criteria from the job specification emboldened. This statement was successful in getting an interview, but that does not mean following the same approach will yield success every time, so consider what works best for the role and your application.

School Development – Don’t Upset the Ecosystem

I’m not a fan of education metaphors but in the spirit of true hypocrisy, here goes.

In an ecosystem, there are some species that act a keystone. Their role is like a keystone in an arch – if you remove the keystone, the entire arch collapses.

A famous example is the elimination of the Gray Wolf from the Yellowstone National Park. Without these predators, animals began to over-graze, affecting the populations of plants. Wolves also kept animals away from the beaver habitats. Without the wolves, their habitats were also over-grazed. So, the beaver population decreased due to a lack of food. Without beaver dams to slow down water, erosion of river banks occurred. This displaced soil and plants.

When we cut a school initiative, it has the potential to have this same knock-on effect.

Imagine: a school has decided their phonics scheme is not having the desired impact. They decide to change to a different scheme. Because of this change, there is a myriad of effects:

  • External providers train staff in how to deliver it. This takes up development time originally planned for other things and requires significant time and money.
  • There are new monitoring practices and assessments, which take up a lot of time.
  • Leaders adapt the timetable to meet the new scheme’s requirements, affecting the timetabling of other subjects.
  • The new scheme requires children to be split into more groups. This takes up more intervention space and affects timetabling of other interventions.
  • The increased number of groups requires more staff to lead them, taking staff away from other responsibilities.
  • Funding is allocated for new books aligned to the scheme, leaving less funding available elsewhere.
  • Sounds now appear in a different order, which affects the learning of those who have already received some phonics instruction, requiring the order of the scheme to be adapted during its initial implementation.
  • Results do not improve in the first two years of the scheme’s implementation because the changes are widespread and not embedded.

You may be thinking this sounds a bit extreme, but it is a real example I observed. One change can have multiple, unforeseen effects.

This is where the principle of Chesterton’s fence resonates:

‘The principle that reforms should not be made until the reasoning behind the existing state of affairs is understood’.

In schools, we are quick to enact the changes we want to see. Unfortunately, these changes can be often be driven by ideology rather than evidence, by lethal mutations, or by a sense of universalism (i.e. seeing it work in another school and thinking it will therefore work in our contexts). This can cause us to act without spending the appropriate time to consider the effects of the change.

Thinking about this caused me to reflect on my own practice in leadership.

When I was a novice leader, I always thought about what needed to change and what I was changing it to.

As I became more experienced, I instead thought about why something needed to change and whether it really needed to change, or just needed to be tweaked.

When making changes in schools, let’s think about the impact on the ecosystem.

5 Ways to Make Tasks More Challenging

Making tasks challenging is incredibly difficult. A lot of the time, we simply don’t know how well learners will understand our instruction when they have such varying levels of prior knowledge. 

We face a variety of issues in implementing challenge:
– How quickly some students disengage
– Anticipating failure and reducing the level of challenge
– Seeing learners struggle and then overscaffolding
– Not giving enough time 
– Relying on overly familiar strategies
– Anticipating where learners will be in a sequence of learning
– Hard to challenge pupils when you do not know them well

It’s also difficult to define challenge. Is it dictated by….
– the amount of time we give for the task?
– the amount of effort or cognitive demand we expect from the learner?
– the number of steps involved?
– the level of prior knowledge they have to access? 

So, challenge = difficult to define and difficult to design.

What can we do to introduce challenge then? 

  1. Productive struggle/productive failure – the jury is out on this with conflicting research into its efficacy. Is it better to have instruction followed by problem solving or problem solving followed by instruction? Productive struggle/failure argues the latter to be the case. In maths for example, the evidence seems to point towards I-PS for younger children with some benefit to PS-I for children of secondary age and up as shown here – https://twitter.com/Mr_AlmondED/status/1594271352340578307. The intention of productive struggle is to engage the learner with the task, starting to think about what the task is asking of them – task completion does not matter at this initial stage. 
  2. If we are to use productive struggle as a strategy, Dooley (2012) provides very useful advice in what to do next in the form of ‘consolidating tasks’. These are tasks that are similar in form/nature to the productive struggle task, provided later on in a learning sequence. The aim of such a task is to show the learner that even though they struggled initially, they can now complete the task and therefore have learned something/overcome challenge.  This lends credence to that counter-intuitive idea that demotivating pupils in the short-term is better for motivation in the long-term. 
  3. I mentioned earlier that one issue with challenge is that we anticipate learners struggling and reduce the level of challenge. Sullivan et al (2009) provide us with a solution to this. In the planning stage, we think of ‘enabling prompts’ – prompts that support the learner in attempting the task, without overscaffolding in the moment. A benefit is that the learner continues to attempt the task independently without over-relying on the teacher’s guidance. 
  4. Additionally, they suggest we think of ‘extending prompts’ – these are prompts that can extend the thinking of the learner when they have completed the task, rather than us creating a task in the moment that may not meet our instructional intentions.  The extending prompt is designed to extend the thinking of the learner on the same context as the original task, not create an entirely separate context altogether. 
  5. The final way we can consider challenge is taken from the NCETM. They talk of the FICT model:

    F – Familiarity
    I – Independence
    C – Complexity
    T – Technical Demand 

I’ve adapted this model into scales to demonstrate how each can affect the level of challenge. These are presented in pictures below: 




Technical Demand:

Nothing of what I have said in this blog is subject-specific, although all of the ideas presented above come from the mathematics community. I think they all have use outside of the maths classroom. If you have any thoughts on challenge, I’d love to hear them.

Starter tasks – are we using them badly?

We know that the brain actively seeks to tie new information to what it already knows (i.e. schemas, activation theory etc) and the role prior knowledge plays in this. Therefore, the intention of an introductory task or ‘starter’ *should* be to elicit prior knowledge. 

This intention may have been lost along the way as the three-part lesson (starter, main, plenary) became more dominant and starters were instead dictated by a set amount of time (i.e., having to be no longer than 5 minutes long). Subsequently, the ‘starter task’ became a vehicle for securing engagement or a tool for managing transition and lost sight of its primary function. We don’t want to fall into the same old trap of making a task engaging for engagement’s sake. 

However, being aware of the challenges that varying levels of prior knowledge can present (e.g. distraction, loss of interest), it is understandable why we may have begun to use starters as a chance to engage all learners. 

As with any task, we should always be asking ourselves, ‘what is it we want the learner to actually think about?’ 

A starter recall task such as “tell me everything you learnt last lesson about the Egyptians” is likely to be ineffective because it doesn’t provide appropriate retrieval cues. It will yield varied results and will not give an honest picture of what all students actually know. 

If we provide opportunity for limited thinking to occur, that is likely what we will get in return, so we should think carefully about how these retrieval questions are written. 

Near the start of a unit, or when recently learnt info is being recalled, the starter should contain sufficient retrieval cues to activate prior knowledge – e.g. Egyptians believed in afterlife. How did they prepare the dead for this? What did they do during these ceremonies? 

If we know the knowledge is very recently learnt, or it has not yet been recalled enough to be secure in the learner’s mind, then specific (and perhaps even leading) cues should be used. 

As that same knowledge is retrieved later on in a sequence of learning, we can move away from being specific to encourage more thinking on the part of the learner – e.g. what did Egyptians believe about the afterlife? 

If the function of a starter is to primarily activate prior knowledge (and secondarily engage the learner), then it must also present the opportunity to uncover a lack of prior knowledge or misconceptions. 

In order for that to happen, a starter should not only follow the path of simple recall, but require greater depth on behalf of the learner, so that the teacher can assess their current understanding more easily. Including misconceptions is one way to achieve this. 

Providing a task that demands greater depth of thinking can tell us a lot more and help to guide the rest of a lesson in the appropriate direction – “Were Ancient Greek and Egyptian beliefs similar?” 

Simple recall is an effective starter task, but it must be designed carefully so that it achieves the desired result. 

In summary:
– Is the starter task eliciting/activating prior knowledge?
– Is the starter task just for engagement?
– Does the starter task focus on simple recall?
– Does the starter task provide opportunity for deeper thinking? 

Where Do Classroom Tasks Fail? Part Three

Part one looked at the constructivist teaching fallacy and poor proxies for learning.

Part two looked at the twin sins of curriculum design and mathemathantic effects.

Part three will look at challenge-by-choice, anachronistic tasks and tasks that do not match their instructional intentions.


For those unfamiliar, challenge-by-choice refers to task-based differentiation, whereby the learner chooses which task they do from a selection (usually of three or more tasks). Seemingly, the most popular version of this is referred to as a ‘chilli challenge’, whereby the learner picks the difficulty of their task based on how ‘spicy’ it is.

Akin to fun tasks, this method may be utilised by teachers to secure the engagement of learners. However, challenge-by-choice presents issues. It often leads to learners not being challenged appropriately because they are not self-aware enough of their current level of understanding, resulting in them picking a task that is either too easy or too difficult. Notwithstanding, creating three or more different tasks creates a formative assessment nightmare for us as the teacher, making it increasingly difficult for us to provide instant feedback to the learner.

Anachronistic Tasks

Perhaps most commonly seen in history lessons, anachronistic tasks present another area where classroom tasks can fail. Throughout the design of a task, we must ask ourselves what it is that we want the learner to think about when they attempt it. Anachronistic tasks contradict this, presenting the opportunity for the learner to be distracted from what should be the focus. Inevitably, this can result in an ineffective tasks and learners’ knowledge not being secure.

In history, we are concerned with contemporaneous accounts from the time and this has led to tasks such as writing newspaper reports about the Roman invasion of Britain. The issue here is twofold:

  • First, that if the learner is focusing on the features of a newspaper report and how to write in a journalistic style, they are not thinking as deeply as we would like about the historical content itself. This was something OFSTED noticed in their inspection of history in outstanding primary schools, stating that there were often tasks which “distracted from the history content pupils needed to learn”.
  • Second, such anachronistic tasks could embed misconceptions that things existed outside of the time periods in which they were created (the first newspaper was believed to have been written in 1605 – well after the Romans conquered Britain).

NB: This is not to say anachronism is useless in the study of history. It can be used effectively. For example, the presence of an anachronistic object in a historical photo could tell us a source is not reliable.

Tasks not matching the instructional intention

This links to my first guiding principle of task design, which will be the topic of a future blog. I have also hinted at this issue in a recent blog on KWL grids as an assessment tool, but indulge me as I make a similar point using another common task.

‘Look, say, cover, write, check’ is a common task used to promote spelling in primary schools. It is done in a table format like the one displayed below:

The instructional intention is for pupils to remember the common grapheme (letters representing a sound) used to represent a phoneme (the sound) in a group of spellings – e.g. /ā(r)/ made by air in fair, hair, chair etc.

However, ‘look, say, cover, write, check’ does not get pupils to think about the common graphemes that can be used to make a phoneme. Instead, it gets the learner to focus on the word as an entire unit, rather than breaking it down into parts. It does not get the learner to consider the grapheme-phoneme correspondence. It also gets them to store a word in working memory while it is hidden from view and then write the word onto a piece of paper in front of them. This presents us as teachers with the illusion that a learner is able to spell all the words correctly, but doesn’t tell us if they have understood the learning behind the spellings themselves. In other words, it demonstrates to us that they can store something in short-term memory, but not that they have retrieved knowledge from long-term memory (unless, of course, the child does already know how to spell the word).

This is just one of many tasks that fail to match our instructional intention. This idea will be explored further in the next blog in this series.

Why KWL Grids Are Not Fit For Purpose

If you are not familiar with KWL grids, let me explain. They are an assessment tool of three stages. What the learner already Knows (K), what the learner Wants to know (W) and then finally what the learner has Learnt (L).

So, they usually look something like this:

Teachers give them to pupils at the start of a unit of learning (e.g. Ancient Egypt) and pupils would fill in the first column. However, there is no retrieval cue for the learner, just the empty column as you saw above.

So, as a means of finding out prior knowledge and gaps in learning between students, this column is extremely limited in its use. We would be better placed as teachers to ask questions that link specifically to our curriculum:

e.g. “What do you know about the use of the River Nile in Ancient Egypt?”

This allows learners to retrieve specific knowledge related to what they will learn, enabling them to potentially see connections between other units, such as rivers studied in geography or other history units.

The middle column is often wasted time. It gets learners to write down what they would like to know about. This leads to learners writing questions about things you won’t cover (as they’re not relevant) or oddly specific questions you likely do not have the subject knowledge to answer.

The final column suffers the same issue as the first. There is no retrieval cue for learners to respond to. They are met with an empty column and expected to dump all the knowledge learnt into it. This, inevitably, leads to learners not writing down all that they truly remember.

Often, the L part of the grid is completed by students flicking back through books. The issue here is that it does not require the learner to retrieve from long-term memory. The learner is just storing content in working memory momentarily, while they copy it across to the grid.

Consider which is more effective:

– Write down everything you have learnt about Ancient Egypt.

– Tell me what you know about the Ancient Egyptian belief of the ‘afterlife’.

The former is likely to elicit some factual knowledge with perhaps no depth or thought given to connections between the facts – at least for the majority of pupils. The latter requires the learner to think harder, to think of specific facts and then consider the relation between them.

The latter is by no means a perfect assessment question, but serves the purpose of assessment far better than an empty L column. Ideally, a series of questions similar to the ‘afterlife’ one are given – perhaps even facilitating links between it and prior knowledge:

e.g. We learnt about the Norse belief of the afterlife when we studied the Vikings and Anglo-Saxons in Year 3. What similarities and differences do you see in their beliefs and the beliefs of the Ancient Egyptians on the afterlife?

I used KWL grids myself. It is only through using them for a while that I discovered their inadequacy. I fell for the illusion that it was an engaging task because I was using the middle column to engage learners and to let them take control of what they learnt.

But assessment is essential. Essential to teaching, essential to curriculum and essential to sequencing learning over time. We do ourselves and the learners we teach a disservice if we don’t assess as accurately as we possibly can.

I do not claim any one type of assessment is the *best* in foundation subjects. However, there are many that serve the purpose more successfully than KWL grids (such as retrieval quizzes, multiple choice Qs, essays and short paragraphs in response to Qs).

Where Do Classroom Tasks Fail? Part Two

This is a blog in a series on task design. The others can be found here.

Part one looked at the constructivist teaching fallacy and poor proxies for learning. This part will look at the twin sins of curriculum design and mathemathantic effects.

The Twin Sins of Curriculum Design

Wiggins and McTighe posit that curriculum design (and therefore indirectly task design) often falls victim to these twin sins:

  1. Activity-focused teaching

“Here, teachers plan and conduct various activities, worrying only about whether they are engaging and kid-friendly.” – Wiggins and McTighe

Activity-focused teaching results in tasks that have been designed to secure engagement, often at the expense of linking appropriately to what has been taught or, more generally, curriculum goals. Consequently, these tasks are often designed in isolation, separate from the necessary sequencing of learning throughout a unit or curriculum. Tasks designed within an activity-focused framework struggle to meet the intended instructional purpose and are therefore redundant in any assessment of learning the teacher seeks to pursue. A common example recognised from English primary schools would be ‘Biscuit Stonehenge’. After learning about Stonehenge, pupils are provided biscuits to create a model of Stonehenge. The task has been designed to secure pupil engagement, but holds little-to-no educational value past that.

Example of Biscuit Stonehenge. Source.

NB: There is absolutely nothing wrong with designing tasks that are fun. Learners, especially young children, should build an enthusiasm towards learning through fun tasks when appropriate. Such fun tasks are very common at the end of learning units and understandably so. However, when fun tasks do not align with curriculum intentions, they are unlikely to build memory and should not be used *if* this is the primary aim. As Wiggins and McTighe dictate, “such activities are like cotton candy – pleasant enough in the moment, but lacking long-term substance”. As alluded to in part one with both Coe and Mayer’s thinking, we must not misconstrue engagement with learning.

  • Coverage-based teaching

Coverage-based teaching refers to covering large amounts of curriculum content at speed and at the expense of any depth of understanding for the learner.

It therefore results in tasks that only allow the learner to create a shallow understanding of knowledge and prevents the building of automaticity or fluency, as not enough time is devoted to building this up through tasks of regular practice. Coverage-based teaching flies in the face of everything we know about how memory is established and maintained over time (e.g. spacing effect, retrieval practice). By rushing through content with superficial and shallow tasks, we operate under the illusion that pupils have learnt it simply because it has been ‘covered’.

Mathemathantic Effects

Clark (1989) argues that poorly designed tasks can exacerbate ‘mathemathantic effects’ (manthanein = learning + Thanatos = death).

Clarke states that, “Whenever an instructional treatment encourages students to replace an existing, effective learning strategy with a dissimilar alternative, learning is depressed.”

Mathemathantic effects can occur when certain areas of learning go through a substitution: learning strategies, motivational goals and student control.

I have taken the examples Clarke produces and made them specific to task design below:

Examples of mathemathantic effects on learning strategies:

  • Learners have little prior knowledge but task assumes the learner has automated strategies, knowledge and skills available
  • Learners have much prior knowledge but task requires them to use strategies which interfere with their automated strategies, knowledge and skills

Examples of mathemathantic effects on motivational goals:

  • Learners are afraid of failing but tasks provide minimal guidance or structure
  • Learners want to achieve success but are given a task that is highly structured and provides too much support and guidance

Example of mathemathantic effects on student control:

  • Learners need a lot of support and guidance but are made to do tasks that are open-ended and ask a lot of them
  • Learners need little support and guidance but are made to do tasks that are highly structured and controlled

The third part will look at challenge-by-choice, anachronistic tasks and when tasks fail to match instructional intentions.

Where Do Classroom Tasks Fail? Part One

This blog is part of a series on task design. The previous blogs can be found here.

It seems obvious that to design tasks effectively, we need to know what can make tasks ineffective. By knowing these pitfalls, we can circumvent them and consequently design more effective tasks.

I defined Constructivism in a previous blog, as believing that a learner ‘constructs’ their own understanding. Constructivism therefore supposes that tasks should facilitate the opportunity to generate such an understanding for the learner. This has led to exploratory learning in the classroom, such as through inquiry-based learning. The belief being that the learner should build the knowledge themselves and therefore need to discover the knowledge in order to do so.

In critique of this theory, Mayer (2004) offers up the ‘Constructivist Teaching Fallacy’, whereby teachers may believe that a learner being ‘cognitively active’ “translates into a constructivist theory of teaching in which the learner is behaviourally active” also.  

Mayer has depicted this through a 2×2 grid below:

This grid outlines that a Constructivist view of teaching believes learning only occurs, or is at the very least most effective, when the bottom right quadrant is satisfied. Learners have to be behaviourally (interpreted to mean physically) active for pupils to be able to construct knowledge within their minds. We of course know this to be untrue from our daily practice, where learners sit at desks for lengthy periods and still learn quite effectively.

Poor Proxies

When learners are engaging independently with the learning task, we can observe certain behaviours that lead us to believe the task is working effectively. Here we can refer to Rob Coe’s (2014) ‘Poor Proxies for Learning’:

  • Students are busy: lots of work is done (especially written work)
  • Students are engaged, interested, motivated
  • Students are getting attention: feedback, explanations
  • Classroom is ordered, calm, under control (or noisy)
  • Curriculum has been ‘covered’
  • Students have supplied correct answers (even if they have not really understood them, cannot reproduce them independently, will have forgotten them soon, already knew it)
  • Task completion (especially quickly)

*The emboldened parts are my own thinking around poor proxies.

The poor proxies above create an illusion for us as teachers – they lead us to believe learning is happening, when of course we know that learning is invisible (Didau, 2015) and can take place across a series of lessons, and not necessarily in just a single lesson. We must be conscious of these proxies as teachers, and as leaders observing tasks in lessons, as it can mislead our assessment of pupils’ learning. If we believe in these poor proxies, then ineffective tasks mask themselves as effective.

Part two will look at the twin sins of curriculum design and mathemathantic effects.


Coe (2014) – What Makes Great Teaching?

Didau (2015) – Slides from London Festival of Education.

Mayer (2004) – Should There Be a Three-Strikes Rule Against Pure Discovery Learning?