4 ‘Safe Bets’ to Improve Student Outcomes


Key Takeaways

  1. It’s the curriculum, stupid. Curriculum is the starting place for school improvement.
  2. A quality curriculum is a knowledge-rich curriculum. Learning should be engaging, complex, hard-work and detailed.
  3. Love the staff you’re with. Teacher quality and improving teacher quality is key to improving student outcomes
  4. Teacher habits are hard to change but worth the time.  Improving teacher quality is more about habit change than knowledge delivery.


In  a previous post, we dispelled a number of ‘common sense’ myths about how to improve schools. Now we dive a little deeper into Dylan Wiliam’s book ‘Creating the Schools our Children Need’, to look at some of the  ‘safe bets’ to improve education.

When it comes to school improvement nearly everything works somewhere, at some time and in some way. The vast majority of initiatives undertaken in school have at least some benefit on student outcomes. However, unless you have found the magic money tree, and used some of that magic money to buy a magic time machine, schools need to make tough choices between a number of options, all of which are likely to have a positive impact on students. 

So with limited resources at your disposal, you need to consider not just if something works, but whether it’s cost-effective and contextually appropriate. To help with this, William, suggests the following options as safe bets for all schools to examine as a part of their improvement journey.

 It’s the curriculum, stupid.

The curriculum should be a fundamental question for teachers and school leaders. This should be obvious, but the importance of the curriculum is often overlooked.

Over the last decade, there has been a wave of media pundits and educational gurus, suggesting that the school curriculum needs to change to meet the demands of the twenty-first century. In education circles, this can be seen in the fierce traditionalist versus progressive debate; with those on the ultra-progressive side suggesting that the traditional curriculum should be reformed in favour of “twenty-first-century” skills and preparing students for jobs of the future.

William suggests caution around this push for twenty-first-century skills and suggests considering the following:

  1. Human beings are historically very bad at predicting what jobs and technology will be needed in the future. It is highly improbable we will successfully future-proof a curriculum, and the labour market disruption we’re expecting is probably overplayed.
  2. Learning how to learn is extremely attractive; however “it doesn’t appear to be possible to learn how to learn without learning something”. Thus, the need for curriculum content.
  3. There is no agreed definition of what twenty-first-century skills are.
  4. Twenty-first-century skills are not singular skills but rather a complex interplay between a range of knowledge and multiple skills.
  5. Even if these were singular skills, they are not transferable between Domain areas. For example, the critical thinking that students are undertaking in Maths is unlikely to help them  think critically in History.

Student mastery of so-called twenty-first-century skills isn’t really what separates high and low academic outcomes. Instead, what’s in students’ long term memory is more important to their performance.

From Creating the Schools our Children Need:

“The main purpose curriculum is to build up the content of long-term memory so that when students are asked to think, they are able to think in more powerful ways because what is in their long-term memories makes their short-term memories more powerful. That is why the curriculum matters.”


A quality curriculum is a knowledge-rich curriculum.

So, what is being taught in the classroom needs to be carefully considered. To maximise student outcomes this curriculum needs to be a carefully planned “knowledge-rich” curriculum.  Knowledge-rich means more than just memorising facts, instead students need to be able to make a connection between different aspects of knowledge. Planning for this type of knowledge-rich curriculum has strong links to Understanding by design.

From Creating the Schools our Children Need:

“If we wanted students just to learn facts, then they could be learnt in any order… We could just list all of the things that we wanted students to know, and they could be learnt in any order. However, that would not help students to see the connection between aspects of their knowledge. More important, the lack of connection between different aspects of knowledge means that students are less likely to remember what they have just learned. Connections between different aspects of knowledge are important both in themselves and as an aid to long-term memory.”


Knowledge-rich curricula draw on the work of E D Hirsch (2009). In short, a knowledge-rich curriculum elevates domain-based knowledge and general knowledge alongside the ability of students to make connections between sets of knowledge.

This acquisition of knowledge is an end in itself and the pathway to developing creative and well-rounded citizens. Skills and understanding are seen as knowledge rather than generic abilities that can be taught outside of specific knowledge domains.

Here are five solid starting points for a knowledge-rich curriculum:

  1.  The curriculum must be well-aligned to the aims of education.
  2. It should be a carefully structured sequenced in an effective manner that builds long-term knowledge in student’s memories.
  3. Instructional sequences need to be carefully designed to not overload students working memories because the spare capacity in short-term memory is what’s needed to produce changes in long-term memory.
  4. Rather than teaching in big blocks, material needs to be distributed over weeks, months, and even years, giving students a chance to review material when it is no longer familiar, thus boosting long-term memory. This is called spaced or distributed practice.
  5. The curriculum should provide regular, frequent opportunities for self-testing, to provide retrieval practice and to take advantage of the hypercorrection effect – the tendency for “high-confidence errors” to be more valuable for learning than low-confidence errors.


Knowledge-rich curricula should also consider  Cognitive Load Theory. Whilst this topic is worthy of several blog posts in itself  (for example, this one by John Sweller), effectively this means that the knowledge students are required to learn is delivered in manageable chunks of information, so as not to overwhelm their short-term memory. To maximise the chance of this information passing into their long term memory, the information should be desirably difficult and revised at regular intervals.

Love the staff you’re with

We know that getting smarter people into teaching, firing all ‘bad teachers’, performance pay, reducing class sizes, school choice and copying successful success country are at scale very unlikely to significantly improve teacher capacity. Therefore, the possibly unsexy but hard reality is that if we truly care about improving student outcomes, then we genuinely need to care about each individual staff member and help them to improve their teaching practices.

Teaching is hard and several factors the influence teacher quality. Experience is certainly a factor in teaching quality. Expertise has gained prominence through Malcolm Gladwell’s (2008) popularization of the notion 10,000 hours of practice creates expertise. The work that Gladwell’s book popularised, by Anders Ericsson suggests that expertise is more than simply logging hours of experience and enacting already acquired knowledge. To get significantly better at something practice needs to be focused on doing things that the individual cannot yet do or cannot yet do well. This is what Ericsson calls deliberate practice.

So, rather than observing whole lessons or having ‘walk-throughs’ or evaluating lessons, teachers should be concentrating on enacting a specific piece of knowledge or practice. For example, this might be ensuring students’ have adequate ‘wait time’ after being asked a question. Teachers need an avenue to analyse the meaningful patterns they are creating and ideally receive quality and timely feedback. Most importantly, this is not reducible to words; it requires practice and the development of long-term memory.

A reasonable question at this point is, what should teachers be deliberately practising? Wiliams has a clear number one priority for teachers: Formative assessment.

Formative assessment

According to Wiliam (2009) formative assessment “functions formatively to the extent that evidence about student achievement elicited by the assessment is interpreted and used to make decisions about the next steps in instruction that are likely to be better, or better founded, than the decisions that would have been taken in the absence of that evidence.” There are a range of alternatives to this definition; however, Wiliam’s suggestion that all approaches to short-cycle (within the classroom) formative assessment requires the following elements:

  1. Ensuring that students know what they are meant to be learning
  2. Finding out what students have learnt
  3. Providing feedback that improves student learning
  4. Having students help each other learn
  5. Developing students’ ability to monitor and assess their own learning


From Creating the Schools our Children Need:

“The challenge here, of course, is that changing what teachers do in their classrooms is extremely difficult because classrooms are such complex places. Teachers need to keep a clear focus on their instructional objectives, must respond to students’ instructional and other needs, manage classroom behavior, keep a focus on equity and do this in real time when there is literally almost no time to think If we are to realize the power of short-cycle formative assessment to improve student achievement, we need to understand how to support teachers in charging their classroom habits.”  



Teacher habits are hard to change but worth the time. 

Habits are hard to change, just ask any smoker or someone that is aiming at a lifestyle change. Even when we have summoned our courage and enacted change, it is easy to fall back into old habits. Teaching is not different from other aspects of our life, and we are creatures of habit.

Knowing-doing gap

What we know we should do as human beings and our daily habits are not always aligned. We know we should exercise at least three times a week, drink lots of water, not drink a lot of wine and eat a vegetable-rich diet. But in our busy lives sometimes we fall short of this.


People also fall short in the professional realm as well. For example, some hospitals in the USA have recorded handwashing rates by medical professionals at below 50% despite professional development about the importance of this process. Jeffrey Pfeffer (2000) labels this the “knowledge-doing” gap. So, how do we close the knowledge doing gap?     

From Creating the Schools our Children Need:

“For the foreseeable future, improving teacher quality requires investing in the teachers we already have. To be most effective, however, that investment must be focused on the things that benefit students most, and that is using assessment to adjust instruction to better meet student’s needs. Many schools are already using common assessments to monitor student progress…in addition [schools] need also to develop the ability of their teachers to assess their students and adjust their instruction minute-by-minute and day-by-day. Since this involves changing what teacher do in their classrooms, it is best thought of as a process of habit change rather than knowledge acquisition”


Wiliam suggests that two things can help teachers change habits for the better.
 

1. Coaching

Coaching can be an effective way to improve teaching quality and thus, student outcomes. However, to ensure this effectiveness, the following need to be met:

  1. Schools need to ensure that coaches are effective coaches and not just effective teachers.
  2. Stable and long-term funding to a coaching program.
  3. Coaches are credible practitioners in the view of the staff which they are coaching.
  4. Coaches are still teaching in the classroom.

2. Meeting time

Ultimately, if teachers are going to change their habits, they need time and structure to allow this to happen. This is most likely to be achieved through regular meetings where teachers commit with their peers what they are going to try out in their classrooms and are held accountable for making those changes. This means clearing meeting time of administrative and low yield tasks to allow staff to discuss feedback on previous actions, consider research and complete an ongoing action plan, Wiliam offers advice about structuring meetings on his blog.

If you want to hear more from Dylan Wiliam, have a listen to this interview with the always excellent Ollie Lovell

Key Takeaways


  1. It’s the curriculum, stupid. Curriculum is the starting place for school improvement.
  2. A quality curriculum is a knowledge-rich curriculum. Learning should be engaging, complex, hard-work and detailed.
  3. Love the staff you’re with. Teacher quality and improving teacher quality is key to improving student outcomes
  4. Teacher habits are hard to change but worth the time.  Improving teacher quality is more about habit change than knowledge delivery.