Making Every Lesson Count: Six pedagogical principles

Written by: Helen Webb | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

The education book Making Every Lesson Count describes six pedagogical principles – from challenging to modelling to feedback – that can give us a great framework for teaching. Helen Webb offers some ideas and tips for how these principles can work in practice

I recently started teaching at Orchard Mead Academy – a secondary school in Leicester that has a higher than average proportion of disadvantaged students and students with English as an additional language.

One strategy that has contributed to rapid school improvement has been to use Shaun Allison and Andy Tharby’s book Making Every Lesson Count (2015) to inform our teaching and learning model. The book describes six interconnected pedagogical principles that provide a framework for great teaching: challenge, explanation, modelling, deliberate practice, questioning, and feedback.

Adopting this clear framework has given staff a common language to use when planning and delivering lessons and provided a focus when assessing and monitoring the quality of teaching and learning. Ultimately our teaching and learning model attempts to create a schema in the minds of our teachers about effective learning environments. This article offers practical ideas inspired by these six principles and our teaching and learning model.

Challenge... that students have high expectations of what they can achieve.

It is key that students and teachers recognise that high expectations and challenge is not reserved for those in top sets or who are labelled as more able.

Challenge involves pushing students into the struggle zone where they need to think and where learning takes place. Reiterating the point to students that it is okay to get things wrong, but it is not okay to not try is really important – no blank pages please! Remember:

  • Know your subject well: Articulating challenging aspects of a course or common misconceptions can be motivating when framed appropriately to students. We might say to key stage 3 students: “This is GCSE-level work you are tackling today!”
  • It can be useful to refer to examiners’ reports for aspects of your subject that many students find challenging.
    There should be an expectation for everyone to aim high and achieve the objectives of the lesson. Avoiding the use of “all”, “most”, “some” when sharing lesson objectives is a good starting point. Shift away from having multiple versions of worksheets and towards the inclusion of scaffolding strategies that work towards the same outcome. One simple tweak is to say to pupils: “If you know what you are doing, great – ignore me and carry on! I will go through another example with the rest of you.”
  • Expecting 100 per cent participation is another way of demonstrating high expectations. Three ideas: A hands-down policy and cold-calling (ask your question first, then pause to encourage all students to think before stating the chosen student’s name); students can “find a friend” to get help with an answer, but they then need to repeat the correct answer back to you; mini-whiteboards or electronic versions ( or can increase engagement – so you are not just asking one student one question at a time.

Explanations... enable students to acquire new knowledge and skills.

Subject knowledge is vital. Teachers with a strong subject knowledge are better equipped to give clear, understandable and varied explanations. They are also better at planning for and spotting misconceptions, providing analogies and giving a variety of concrete examples to help get their explanations to stick. Teachers who can speak with confidence and share interesting anecdotes, are also much more able to inspire young people in their subject. Consider how teachers in your department are supported to improve their own subject knowledge. Some other suggestions:

  • Draw upon a variety of revision guides and textbooks to select and construct the most coherent explanations of a particular topic. Also, complete yourself any activities you are setting so that you can pre-empt the pitfalls and address them in your explanations.
  • Keep your explanations concise and relevant by paying close attention to exam board specifications and mark schemes.
  • Script and practise giving explanations for tricky concepts ahead of your lesson. Can you give a great explanation without relying on your PowerPoint?

Modelling... that students know how to apply knowledge and skills.

Useful questions to consider before you begin modelling include: What is the subject content or skills I want the students in front of me to learn? What does a grade 9 or A* answer look like for this task?

  • When setting up an activity, share with students “what a good one looks like” either via success criteria and/or deconstructing exemplar pieces of past student or teacher-created work. Critiquing a less than perfect exemplar can help students to understand how to improve work.
  • Display galleries of excellence in corridors, classrooms or via school social media accounts.
  • Pre-teach and model Tier 2 formal vocabulary and Tier 3 subject-specific and academic language (see the work of Dr Isabel Beck). Highlight, define and refer to displayed key terms during your explanations.
  • Encourage students to study worked examples prior to independent practice through an “I do, we do, you do” approach.
  • Model your own thinking so students see how you solve the problem; breaking down the procedure into small step-by-step chunks or by articulating your choice of vocabulary or sentence construction for example.
  • Provide sentence starters or phased examples of calculations as scaffolding.
  • Encourage students to “say it before you write it” if they are struggling to get started.
  • Pause the lesson to share (take photos, use a visualiser or read aloud) samples of brilliant work from multiple students that are in working progress to provide students the opportunity to compare and improve their own.
  • When students are stuck, encourage them to reflect on prior knowledge and skills to help them tackle and deconstruct the problem.

Deliberate practice... that key knowledge and skills become embedded.

Deliberate practice provides an opportunity for students to complete and receive feedback on learning activities that focus on well-defined, specific goals and which push students beyond their comfort zones. Deliberate practice should ultimately lead to the development of a mental model of expertise.

In my own subject (science), in order to ensure more time for deliberate practice, rather than spending time copying out notes students are given a summary of the teacher explanation in the style of a Cornell Notes page to stick in their book. Then, during the deliberate practice phase of the lesson, students will quietly and independently answer comprehension-style questions based on their understanding of the teacher explanation/Cornell Notes. They will then progress to a series of more complex ramped application-style questions. We might also provide sentence starters or vocabulary word banks to scaffold responses.

Elsewhere in science, my students complete weekly low-stakes 10-question multiple-choice quizzes and longer monthly quizzes with multiple-choice and short-answer responses. The content of these retrieval quizzes draws upon on a gradually increasing range of threshold concepts and key facts that students “must know” in order to develop a deeper understanding of, and fluency in, the subject.

Questioning... that students are made to think hard with breadth, depth and accuracy.

Questions form a key part of our basic lesson structure at Orchard Mead:

  • Lessons are introduced with a Big Question (rather than a simple title) to ignite curiosity and frame learning intentions from the outset.
  • All typical lessons begin with five “Do Now” drill questions that assess knowledge from a variety of previously taught topics. This is a routine settling activity but allows us to introduce spaced and retrieval practice too.
  • Drill questions are followed by a series of recap questions that revisit and activate prior learning and which directly relate to and scaffold the content of an upcoming lesson. This important activity enables you to check your students’ current understanding and pitch your upcoming “explanation” much more appropriately.
  • Hinge-point questions enable the teacher to know whether it is appropriate to move on, to briefly recap, or completely reteach a key concept before moving on to the next part of the lesson or to progress from surface to deeper learning.
  • Questions are asked throughout the lesson that check for understanding, probe, challenge, promote oracy and encourage metacognition. For example: How do you know that is the correct answer? How did you work it out? What makes it a good answer? What might an alternative viewpoint be? Provide students with possible answers to choose from if their initial response is “I don’t know.” Don’t forget to give students adequate thinking time for challenging questions.

Feedback... that students think about and further develop their knowledge and skills.

The key to making feedback effective is in the quality of what you say or write. Feedback should be goal-orientated, understandable, actionable, specific and personalised. Can students improve as a result of what you have said to them? Is the language you use simple, clear and understandable? For example,

  • “Your answer is too vague.” Do students know what vague means?
  • “Add more detail.” Such as what? Consider including an exemplar in your feedback.

High-quality feedback is much easier to construct if the success criteria is explicit from the start. If the goal is clear, it is then much easier to see the gap between where the student is now and what they need to do to get there.

And remember – feedback does not have to be written down. A lot of great feedback happens while you are circulating your classroom: Mohammed, you may want to check your response to Q1 again; Sarah, what about your units?

Other feedback ideas and tips include:

  • Quickly draw students’ attention to errors using red dot, yellow box, symbol or margin-marking strategies.
  • Ask a student to read their response aloud/or place on a visualiser. Provide this student with detailed verbal feedback in front of the whole class, then ask the class to amend their responses if the same feedback applies to them. Repeat with a more or less able student to provide a variety of feedback.
  • Use codes, comment banks, rubrics and checklists to deliver detailed feedback against success criteria.
  • Other ideas for quick, effective feedback include:
  • Use self-marking Microsoft Forms/Google Quizzes for low-stakes testing to quickly diagnose misconceptions and gaps in knowledge and to provide more time for focused feedback.
  • Provide DIRT (Dedicated Improvement and Reflection Time) tasks for students to respond to the feedback they have been given.
  • End lessons with an exit ticket – a short explicit assessment of your objective that is then used to evaluate your (and your students’) success. A quick flick through the responses help you to determine your next steps as a teacher – move on, or reteach.

Further information & resources


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