New Teaching Ideas – Making the Marginal Gains

My most recent post on #marginalgains was an attempt to move my thinking forward and explore what I view as the most important marginal gains for my teaching, as well as exploring what I see as the essentials of teaching pedagogy. The two key areas I see as being the key ‘hinge point marginal gains’ (marginal in terms of shaping often lengthier learning activities, as well as being usually only one of two minute spells in the overall lesson time, but crucial in terms of making progress) are questioning and oral formative feedback.


I see these two areas of pedagogy as essential in oiling the wheels of learning and making progress visible. I want to continue to make marginal gains with a laser-like focus upon these two areas of pedagogy. With this in mind, I am making these explicit in my planning for the coming half-term.

The following teaching strategies were partially inspired by Harvard’s ‘Project Zero’ thinking skills approach to learning. I am planning to trial them all over the course of the next half-term:

1. Oral Formative Feedback and the CSI routine


Now, apologies for my false advertising, there is no criminal investigation, no Who music dramatically emerging from the speakers to herald the activity (although that may actually be a good idea!). It is simply an acronym for the thinking routine – ‘Colour, Symbol, Image’. With any given idea or topic, students can show their understanding by making simple, but potentially sophisticated relational links to the idea/topic. I see it as a simple oral feedback approach, perhaps conducted through a ‘think-pair-share’ approach to oil the wheels still further, undertaken quite swiftly. It is a simple but precise approach that may work better with certain topics and ideas, but is eminently flexible and a great hinge point to identify progress.

2. Oral Formative Feedback and the 3-2-1 Routine

This strategy is similar to the ‘CSI routine’ in that it provides a quick and precise language, and a routine for feedback (students love a good sign-posted routine!). The 3-2-1 routine stands for ‘3 thoughts or ideas; 2 questions; and 1 analogy‘. I like this step by step approach as it can provide effective differentiation in their level of response – with the the questions and the analogy clearly stretching student understanding. Once again, the quality of response clearly demonstrates how much, or how little, progress students have made with a given topic or idea. It can therefore provides a real hinge point to the lesson.

3. Questioning and ‘Creative Questioning’

A very simple idea in many ways, but I think it is an effective strategy for generating creative questions and getting students to generate their own questions that can be imaginatively transformative. For any given object or topic students can work in pairs to create an imaginative list of questions, using the following prompts:

– How would it be different if…
– How might it be used differently…
– What would change if…
– How would it be different if it was used by…
– Suppose that…
– How would it look differently if…

In the past I have had students make brilliant Dragon’s Den style persuasive sales pitches to sell a plastic bag or a left shoe to great effect! Given the new possibilities, students can select a question to magi natively explore, thinking around the new possibilities. It could provide a stimulus for writing a narrative, creating a piece of art, devising a drama piece, or a new design technology creation. The question prompts exemplify students the imaginative and transformative impact simple questions can have upon their learning.

4. Questioning and the ‘Great Question Continuum’

This involves reflecting upon questions deeply in a very visible way. A few weeks ago I noted some great questions related to the English Literature staple, ‘Of Mice and Men’, on Twitter (from the sage David Doherty aka @dockers_hoops). It involved asking which character would and should be the next American President; followed by which character would you least like to sit next to in class. These ideas were brilliant gems that got me thinking how far an original question can take the learning. The continuum involves the students first devising questions, in pairs or groups, on any given topic or idea. Then the continuum is created very visibly, either on the whiteboard, or more semi-permanently on a display board (great to resume the strategy in future lessons) – with student questions being on post it notes for added flexibility. The horizontal axis would represent the ‘Interest Level’ generated by each question – that is how likely the question is to inspire new thinking and new possibilities, and simply the interest level it generates from the group. Then the vertical axis could be flexible in a variety of ways, should you wish to include a vertical axis. The vertical axis could represent ‘Complexity‘ – that is how far the question would deepen their understanding and generate complex thinking. Students could feedback their opinions, shaped by the teacher, to identify the best questions – which then could be the subject of further exploration. By reflecting deeply upon question quality and the breadth of thinking inspired by the question the students could better independently consider different responses and interpretations – a definite marginal gain, and potentially definitive one, for their continued learning.


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About huntingenglish

I am Director of Learning and Research at Huntington Secondary School, York. I have taught English (including a bit of Media Studies) for over a decade. If it is tragic and gothic, laced with humour and bitter truths then I'll teach it! I have had the great privilege to have written a book, 'Teach Now! Becoming a Great English Teacher', edited by the brilliant Geoff Barton, and I am writing another for Routledge, entitled, 'The Confident Teacher'. I am Project Lead of the RISE (Research-leads Improving Students' Education) Project. An EEF funded randomized controlled trial to evaluate if and how a Research-lead can improve outcomes for students. I am a proud member of the Institute for Effective Education (IEE) Executive Board at York University. I am also a proud member of the ResearchEd Advisory Panel. I write regularly for the TES and Teach Secondary magazine. My first book, 'Teach Now! Becoming A Great English Teacher' was released by Routledge in 2014 and my next book, entitled 'The Confident Teacher' will be out at the end of 2015.

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