The best teachers, I find, are the ones who teach for their own reasons. They have the intellectual (and emotional) courage to influence others with no other authority than that which their students may (or may not) perceive in the world around them. When an initiative or principle is suggested, they rightly critique it, and then evolve their practice.

I do not care how successful a teacher may be with their classes now, beyond the fact that such success is a pretty firm indicator of how effective that teacher might be later. Sports teams are littered with managers who achieved great feats who have fallen away as they cling to methods that once worked so well: Brian Clough and Stale Solbakken are two prime examples.

One of the sea-changes in teaching in the UK over the past 30 years is the distinction between teaching to content, and teaching to criteria. I have read some erudite blogs that rightly critique the idea that a curriculum can focus entirely on skills, because there needs to be an understanding of content before skills can be applied. Bloom’s Taxonomy is a pyramid to emphasise that ‘evaluation’ is a higher-level thinking skill. However, just because a student is ‘evaluating’ doesn’t mean that they are operating at a high intellectual level. For example, the questions in Who Wants to Be a Millionaire are solely based at the understand/recall level of Blooms, are are suitably taxing.

The path of questioning I often follow to demonstrate this is:

1) What is my name? (Understanding/Recall)
2) Why did she name me that? (Explain)
3) Is my name better than yours? (Evaluation)

There could be a tighter reference to analytical questions there, but my ambling point is this: that young people are often excellent at having opinions on things. To ensure that such an evaluation is backed up with rigorous analysis is the role of the teacher. ┬áSimply having evaluation in an essay, and by definition developing ‘evaluative skills’, does not determine the quality or veracity of that evaluation. The previous steps of Bloom’s Taxonomy are not simply steps on a ladder: that model is useful for initial teaching, but it has flaws.

This leads us again to the distinction between teaching to criteria and teaching to content. If a teacher’s learning objectives are just to do stuff (L/O to finish the project; L/O to read the poem; L/O to discuss how metaphors are used in the poem), then they may not be focussed upon exactly what kind of thinking might be used in the lesson. Of course, the students might, by osmosis, analyse and evaluate the poem in the process of discussing it. However, the teacher risks missing a trick (and more) by not planning for progress across a series of lessons. For example, by teaching everything there is to know about a poem (onomatopoeia, rhyme, metaphor, enjambment, alliteration etc.) risks the students not firmly knowing any of those techniques. However, by focussing explicitly on a technique in one distinct sequence/lesson, the students are more likely to have a foundation of knowledge (content) that will allow a sounder application of analytical skill.

Just see any student who writes generic comments along the lines of ‘alliteration gives more effect/emphasis’ for an example of how planning that does not aim for progress can debilitate those should be more able.

The pragmatic upshot of this is as follows: L/Os should focus on cognitive verb stems. L/Os containing these should be recorded in advance. I have a series of L/Os in my medium term plan, but plan only 1-2 weeks in advance to allow some flexibility. For example, my Year 10s tomorrow are spending an extra lesson analysing (and applying) how the ‘rule of three’ can be a cohesive device in paragraphs, therefore pushing back the planned lesson where they analyse how a variety of cohesive devices are used in fiction and non-fiction texts. As far as I am concerned, we have already covered the ‘content’ of cohesive devices to make meaning in paragraphs. However, my student requested to drill down into how the rule of three operates beyond listing adjectives.

Of course, there is always a danger that L/Os can be woolly. The WILFs (for me, the prediction of what they students will complete in the lesson) is where the expertise of the teacher is utilised. Today I had 90 minutes (a football match!) of conversation with other teachers about how they use WILFs. The WILFs need to be concrete manifestations of what the teacher (and the student) can expect to see. Not just a reference to a massive sheet of criteria placed strategically inside a book.

So, to summarise:

Learning Objectives: What will the students learn (using the cognitive verb stems, to analyse, to evaluate…)

WILFs: How will you know they have learnt something? (using concrete examples, perhaps differentiated via rubrics).