There is a joke about two men in a bar. One says to his friend ‘I’ve taught my dog to speak French.’ ‘Really?’ says his mate, ‘let’s hear him then.’ ‘I said I taught him, I didn’t say he’d learnt it’ comes the response. There is something important in this anecdote and it is this: that the fact that I have taught something does not mean that my pupils have ‘got’ it. And they are unlikely to have really learnt something unless they produce something worthwhile with the material they are studying.

There is a joke about two men in a bar. One says to his friend ‘I’ve taught my dog to speak French.’ ‘Really?’ says his mate, ‘let’s hear him then.’ ‘I said I taught him, I didn’t say he’d learnt it’ comes the response. There is something important in this anecdote and it is this: that the fact that I have taught something does not mean that my pupils have ‘got’ it. And they are unlikely to have really learnt something unless they produce something worthwhile with the material they are studying.


In the video explaining the rationale for the national curriculum, Tim Oates talks about curriculum ‘products’[1]. When he talks about products he means the things which pupils write, say, draw, the low stakes tests they complete or the things they make. All these provide insights for the teacher into the extent to which pupils know, understand and can do something on their own terms.

First, to consider writing. In many parts of the sector, there is a temptation to get through the writing as fast as possible. A written piece of work requires considerable background knowledge, discussion of that knowledge and rehearsal in order for it to come together. Too often, pupils are set off on a writing task without sufficient ‘food’. By food, I mean the stimulus, exposure to and discussion of vocabulary, use of spelling, punctuation and grammar to support meaning and modelling by the teacher. English teacher Matthew Pink has quite rightly said ‘Showing kids a pre-prepared model answer and asking them to write a paragraph off the back of it is no different from showing them a picture of Duck l’Orange and sending ‘em to the kitchen to knock one up. Teachers must get in her habit of live modelling whenever it is required.’ [2]


Writing is slow and it is difficult. But when pupils are supported and guided through the writing process carefully, the product of writing is likely to reflect what they really understand.

So we need to move away from a temptation for children to complete work, which might not be original to them, such as completing closed questions on a worksheet, for example, and to conclude that they have understood, just because they have completed it. Completion of a task and understanding are not the same thing, but they are often confused. So a child is praised for having finished, before it has been checked whether they have understood it or not.

Next, to what children say: it is the responses which pupils give which provide insight into whether they have understood something. If we are going to find this out, we have to spend time during the lessons asking children questions and listening carefully to their answers. This needs to happen more. Under the pressure of time, it is tempting to either take the first correct answer from one or two children and assume that everyone has ‘got’ it; or to complete some of the answers if they are struggling; or to take incomplete or partial answers and assume that they know the rest. What quite often happens is that children are praised for an incomplete answer and then the lesson moves on. This is not good, on several counts: first, the teacher’s information is incomplete – in the rush to move on to the next part of the lesson, the brief incomplete response is taken to have more significance than it does: it is nothing more than an incomplete response and it is not enough information to judge whether to move on or not. The second reason it is not good enough is because we often need to rehearse and say our thoughts out loud before committing them to paper. As James Britton argued ‘writing floats on a sea of talk.’[3] So by short-cutting the responses we not only have incomplete information about the security of children’s learning, we also are denying them the chance to practise articulating their thoughts. And the third reason why it is not good enough is because pupils have the right to have their ideas heard by others. By moving on too swiftly we are cutting down their ability to refine their language and to deepen their understanding.

The importance of speaking is emphasised in the national curriculum for English. We are doing our children a disservice if we do not both provide them with opportunities and also expect them to articulate their ideas. Many children come from backgrounds which are language poor. If we either expect partial answers, or don’t ask them to speak out loud in full sentences, using subject specific vocabulary then we are denying them the opportunity both to engage deeply with the material and also to perform well in the subject when it comes to exams.

In some, but not all, areas it is possible to gain an insight into children’s thinking through their artwork or artefacts. If they have made a representation of a key idea from literature, or history, or science through sketching or through creating something and are able to talk about what they have produced and how it relates to the subject matter, then it follows that we can gain information about what they understand and where the gaps might be.

Many schools are now experimenting with thinking about real audiences for children’s work. Much of what is asked of children in schools is isolated knowledge and skills. While there is nothing wrong with this per se, the purpose of learning takes on a new dimension when we ask ourselves, where could this go, who else needs to know about this, are there links we could make with this knowledge with the wider community? Who might be an external audience for what we have done?


These are some of the things they are doing: creating a class blog, preparing an exhibition with detailed notes for visitors, preparing samples of their work for governors, taking part in local and national competitions, linking with the local community on arts and environmental projects, younger children sharing their work with older pupils, and vice versa, asking family to come into school to see their work. Children are only able to engage with these wider audiences if they have something authentic to share, based on solid foundations of deep knowledge.

With many thanks to Jason Ramasami for the images

It is not the beauty of a building you should look at; it’s the construction of the foundation that will stand the test of time.

David Allan Coe


Content overload

If the purpose of the new curriculum is that pupils show know things in depth then this is hard to do if they are presented with lots of information without an organising structure. If we pay attention to developing a conceptual structure, then new information from different contexts will become ‘stuck’ to the concept and children are able to make better sense of it. The danger with rushing through content without developing a structure is that it is possible for information to float around, unconnected. Humans seek pattern and connections and we are depriving our children of crucial intellectual development if we do not show them how information fits into a bigger whole.


The temptation to go through a lot of content gives the impression that we have covered a great deal. When in fact, all that has happened is that children have completed some exercises, a lot of them shallow, which give a superficial impression of learning. What happens when we do this is that they are not able to say, in their own words, what they have learnt and how it relates to a bigger picture. An example of this: when checking in a faith school the extent to which pupils know about religions other than their own, they were able to say very little. Although they had plenty of time for religious education, they had only the odd lesson on Islam or Judaism which just dealt with a superficial knowledge of these, in very little time. When asking leaders about the fact that they appeared to know very little, they were exasperated and said that they had been taught. They showed the planning as evidence of this. The planning showed that what the children were taught was fragmentary and ‘tacked on’ as an afterthought. It might have been taught, but because links had not been made with the deep concepts of religion, pupils were unable to say anything meaningful about what they had learnt about other faiths and beliefs. If, for example they had been taught about the Muslim belief in one God, they might have been able to make the connections between Christianity and Judaism and the links in the early history between these faiths. Instead, they thought that Islam consisted of five pillars and could say nothing about them.

Work done or understood

When talking to children who had spent a lesson on partition in maths, they were asked what partition is and how they went about their work. Sadly, those spoken to were not able to say. They looked up at the board to read the learning objectives, stumbled over what it said and were not able to explain it in their own words. So it was an hour wasted because they hadn’t got a clue about what they were supposed to be learning. The previous lesson they had done negative numbers and when asked about these, again they were not able to say. This was because the moving through the curriculum content was valued more highly than checking whether pupils understood what they were doing, why it is important and how it might fit into other things they had learnt or were going to learn.

Making links 

This is a waste of time and it doesn’t secure children’s entitlement to the curriculum. When it is seen as something to be covered rather than understood then we have to go back to basics. And the first basic is to ask ourselves what is the overarching idea here? What do I want my children to be able to do with this new knowledge and how will I know if they have got it? This places greater emphasis on planning and it demands responsive teaching in the lesson. Responsive teaching means fine tuning what has been offered to pupils in light of their engagement with it. If they do not understand it is pointless ploughing on. We need to pause and rewind. It seems longer at the time, but it is shorter in the longer term. That is because in securing children’s understanding of the basic ideas, they will move faster over time. 


Let’s take the concept of ‘civilisation’ which appears in the history curriculum for primary children. Across the primary years they are expected to learn about a range of civilisations and it is one of the expectations that pupils ‘gain and deploy a historically grounded understanding of abstract terms such as civilisation’. They will not gain an understanding of this concept if it is not taught explicitly. They will not make sense of it if the term is not used regularly as they learn about the Roman or Mayan empires for example. All that will happen is that children will have a fragmented range of facts which do not knit together under the concept of civilisation. Their learning and potential for new learning is limited.

So it is important to spend some time unpacking what is meant by civilisation[1] and for the purposes of the national curriculum in history this is about knowing about the defining characteristics of large empires. The term civilisation comes from the Latin for town. The OED definition is the process by which a society or place reaches an advanced stage of social development and organisation[2]. The underlying conditions are usually in place for a civilisation to emerge: a large settlement; the existence of food surpluses, to free a section of society from the need to feed itself so that they are able to produce art, administer the laws and secure order; literacy as a vehicle for myths, history, drama and philosophy. When these are in place there is capacity for cities to grow into centres of authority, exchange and culture. In most cases civilisation also gives rise to literate culture. By this definition, civilisation first appeared in Mesopotamia and Egypt by c. 3000 BC, India by 2. 2800 BC, China by about c. 1500 BC; and Central and South America sometime in the first millennium BC. From these core centres it then spread outwards, taking in most of the world by 1900 AD[3]. Pupils are entitled to have purchase on the scope and range of the concept of civilisation as they learn about specific eras in detail. And the same applies to covenant and incarnation for example, in religious education. Concepts are present in each of the national curriculum subjects.

When time is taken to unpack these, to scope the landscape, to provide the bigger picture, pupils will be developing the intellectual architecture which provides the structure for the detail.

With thanks to Jason Ramasami for the images