The Application of Theory: 8 Propositions that Underpin our Approach.

Designing and implementing a five year curriculum is no easy task: there are so many different things that need to be considered and combined. When we started out on our journey a few years ago, we began with a number of overarching ideas gleaned from both cognitive science and practical teaching guides. What follows is a list of 8 propositions that underpin our approach, along with summaries of how the idea is applied as well as links to further reading.

Proposition 1: Explicit instruction is the optimum strategy for novices


  • Teachers teach from the front as experts, using extensive modelling, demonstration and guiding student practice
  • Most lessons involve whole class teacher led explicit/direct instruction

Further reading and evidence:

‘Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work: An Analysis of the Failure of Constructivist, Discovery, Problem-Based, Experiential, and Inquiry-Based Teaching’ by Kirschner, Sweller and Clark. Accessible here

‘Putting Students on the Path to Learning. The Case for Fully Guided Instruction’. This AFT article summarises the Kirschner paper.

Oliver Caviglioli has produced a useful, visual overview of the AFT paper here 

‘Drivers of Student Performance: Insights from Europe’. Accessible here:

  • According to the report ‘Our research found that student outcomes are highest with a combination of teacher-directed instruction in most to all classes and inquiry-based teaching in some classes’

mckinsey data

Cognitive Load Theory

  • ‘Cognitive Load Theory (Explorations in the Learning Sciences, Instructional Systems and Performance Technologies)’ by Sweller, Ayers and Kalyuga
  • Oliver Caviglioli has produced a useful overview here
  • ‘Efficiency in Learning: Evidence-Based Guidelines to Manage Cognitive Load’ by Clark, Nguyen and Sweller
  • ‘Cognitive Architecture and Instructional Design: 20 Years Later’ by Sweller, Merrienboer and Paas. This recent paper gives a useful review of CLT.
  • I have written a series of practical guides and overviews to CLT

Engelmann’s Direct Instruction and Project Follow Through

Project Follow Through was the largest controlled comparative study of pedagogical techniques in history: from 1967 – 1995, over 700,000 children in 170 disadvantaged communities across the United States participated in this $1 billion study to discover the best practices for teaching disadvantaged students. This was the result:

‘Eighteen school districts, some rural, some urban, applied Direct Instruction (DI). When the testing was over, students in DI classrooms had placed first in reading, first in maths, first in spelling, and first in language. No other model came close. Many of the others underperformed the control groups. DI even defeated the developmental and affective models on their own turf: DI students also placed first in self-esteem. Apparently children who mastered reading, writing, and maths felt better about themselves than those who did not.’

proj follow

  • Kris Boulton has compiled a list of further reading about Engelmann’s DI here.
  • I have written a series of blogs about applying Engelmann’s ideas to the the everyday classroom.

Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction

  • This AFT article explains the principles.
  • This blog links to a useful reordering of Rosenshine’s principles.

Proposition 2: The definition of learning is a change in long term memory


  • Regular, cumulative recap quizzes
  • Teachers focus on retention; wherever possible, content is chosen for utility-what is taught in year 7 is retrieved and applied in later years.
  • Distributed and interleaved practice of ‘The Big 3’ (analysis, description, rhetoric)
  • Booklets and resources are centrally planned to a word level of detail, allowing distributed retrieval practice.
  • Recap lessons and retrieval based homework planned into the curriculum.

Proposition 3: Novices learn better when studying worked examples; experts learn better when attempting problems.


  • If we accept that most students are novices, we should be systematically using worked examples in our instruction
  • The ‘Alternation Strategy’ is a useful approach, allowing students to use worked examples as analogies when solving similar problems
  • Backwards Fading and completion problems can help students make the transition from worked examples to problem solving

Further Reading and Evidence:

  • ‘Cognitive Load Theory (Explorations in the Learning Sciences, Instructional Systems and Performance Technologies)’ by Sweller, Ayers and Kalyuga
  • Olvier Caviglioli has produced a useful overview here
  • ‘Efficiency in Learning: Evidence-Based Guidelines to Manage Cognitive Load’ by Clark, Nguyen and Sweller.

Proposition 4: Once decoding is secure, reading ability is almost entirely based upon background knowledge


  • After a brief instruction in reading strategies, time is probably better spent building background knowledge
  • Systematic, explicit vocabulary teaching throughout KS3 and KS4, focusing on high-utility words.
  • Challenging reading across units.
  • Texts chosen to raise cultural capital, ensuring student’s knowledge of the world is broadened
  • Non-fiction articles threaded throughout units

Further Reading and evidence:

Ask the Cognitive Scientist: ‘The Usefulness of Brief Instruction in Reading Comprehension Strategies’ by Daniel T Willingham. AFT article from 2006

  • This paper looks at how at the importance of background knowledge to reading ability and makes the point that ‘reading strategy programs that were relatively short (around six sessions) were no more or less effective than longer programs that included as many as 50 sessions’. There are diminishing returns to teaching them; they are ‘a low-cost way to give developing readers a boost, but it should be a small part of a teacher’s job. Acquiring a broad vocabulary and a rich base of background knowledge will yield more substantial and longer-term benefits.’

‘Reading Comprehension Requires Knowledge— of Words and the World’ Scientific Insights into the Fourth-Grade Slump and the Nation’s Stagnant Comprehension Scores By E. D. Hirsch, Jr. AFT article from 2003

  • This paper makes some recommendations as to how to improve student comprehension:
  1. Fluency allows the mind to concentrate on comprehension
  2. Breadth of vocabulary increases comprehension and facilitates further learning
  3. Domain knowledge, the most recently understood principle, increases fluency, broadens vocabulary, and enables deeper comprehension.
  4. Don’t spend excessive time teaching formal comprehension skills. Hirsch asserts that ‘the point of a comprehension strategy is to activate the student’s relevant knowledge. That’s great, but if the relevant prior knowledge is lacking, conscious comprehension strategies cannot activate it.
  5. Systematically build word and world knowledge. Hirsch asserts that ‘World knowledge is an essential component of reading comprehension, because every text takes for granted the readers’ familiarity with a whole range of unspoken and unwritten facts about the cultural and natural worlds’

Proposition 5: “Skills are domain specific. Knowledge is the key to successful critical and higher order thinking. As teachers, we should spend the majority of our time building student background knowledge”


  • Systematic, explicit vocabulary teaching throughout KS3 and KS4
  • Challenging reading across units.
  • Texts chosen to raise cultural capital, ensuring student’s knowledge of the world is broadened
  • Regular retrieval practice, ensuring that knowledge is retained. This is made easier by teaching from centrally planned booklets.

Further Reading and Evidence:

‘Minding the Knowledge Gap The Importance of Content in Student Learning’ by Daisy Christodolou AFT Spring 2014

  • Daisy makes the important point that ‘factual knowledge is closely integrated with creativity, problem solving, and analysis. It allows these skills to happen’. Although it may seem counter-intuitive, if the goal of instruction is to solve problems, then the optimum approach may not be to practice problem solving: building background knowledge may be a more useful approach, at least in the early stages of instruction and when dealing with relative novices in a domain.

Critical Thinking Why Is It So Hard to Teach’ by Daniel T Willingham AFT article from 2007

‘Domain-specific knowledge and why teaching generic skills does not work.’ Tricot, A., & Sweller, J. (2014). Educational Psychology Review, 26(2), 265-283. Accessible here

Proposition 6: Practice and drills ensure success; learning tasks may look nothing like final assessment tasks.


  • Because/but/so vocabulary practice activities
  • Progression model of analytical skills (the 6 Skills) and grammar. Initial teaching and practice is through restrictive drills to allow a high success rate; later, student support is gradually faded and application is widened.
  • Stand alone grammar lessons to practice sentence constructions.
  • Focus on components to whole continuum: practice of vocabulary, sentences and paragraphs, building cumulatively towards application in extended writing
  • Information is almost always delivered through extended reading, providing regular reading practice

Evidence and further reading:

prac perfPractice Perfect by Doug Lemov

  • This book fundamentally changed my approach to teaching and explains how effective and purposive practice can accelerate student learning. It explores how to set up drills and exercises as well as how to use modelling effectively. The examples are taken from all walks of life, including the classroom, sports and professional training. The authors describe their approaches with a level of clarity that means that they are easily adaptable to whatever subject you teach.

writing rev

The Writing Revolution by Hochman and Wexler

  • The best practical writing guide that I have read, The Writing Revolution explains how to practice sentences, paragraphs and essays. Because/But/So is such an efficient way to practice vocabulary and is now a regular part of my lessons.

The Components of Direct Instruction by Cathy L. Watkins and Timothy Slocum

  • If you want an overview of DI theory, then this paper is probably the best place to start. It explains ‘the sequencing of skills‘, a framework for planning practice sequences.

making good progress

Making Good Progress by Daisy Christodolou

  • As well as exploring the important difference between summative and formative assessment, this book also explains how practice activities may look nothing like final performances.

Theory of Instruction by Engelmann and Carnine

  • Engelmann’s main theoretical textbook provides a wealth of information about sequencing practice activities and teaching through examples and non-examples. It also describes how items that are taught move gradually from restrictive drills to eventual wider application.

Proposition 7: Comparative judgment is faster and more reliable than traditional summative marking


  • All end of unit essays are assessed using comparative judgment

Evidence and further reading:

Proposition 8: Written Marking is laborious and inefficient: whole class feedback has a lower opportunity cost


  • Teachers use whole class feedback, deconstructing models of excellence and reteaching common errors and misconceptions through responsive teaching and retrieval quizzes.

Evidence and further reading:

  • A marked improvement: a review of the evidence on written marking EEF report April 2016 Accesible here
  • The Effects of Feedback Interventions on Performance: A Historical Review, a Meta-Analysis, and a Preliminary Feedback Intervention Theory by Kluger and DeNisis 1996
  •  Adam Boxer has compiled a useful overview of the evidence surrounding effective feedback and marking.


I hope that some of the summaries and links here are useful!

Next Post: An Overview of The 6 Skills: An Analytical Progression Model


4 thoughts on “The Application of Theory: 8 Propositions that Underpin our Approach.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: