The puzzle of how teachers learn best

How do teachers learn best? What is the best way to improve professional practice so that this has a positive effect on student learning outcomes? These questions have been puzzling me for years and here is why.

A newly qualified teacher was having a really tough time at school. He was teaching in a secondary school in a socioeconomically deprived area. The reality was quite bleak, he told me a few years ago: his students were not paying any attention to him. Our conversation happened one evening in Birmingham, during a seminar that my colleagues and I had organised. The next day we visited a school – and it blew his mind. It was the first time he had seen a high performing secondary school that served students in a very challenging context. These boys and girls, despite the challenges of poverty in their community, were learning amazingly well!

About a year later, the same teacher told me that this had been a turning point in his teaching career. He started truly believing that all of his students could succeed in school. He said he just had to continue learning and reflecting how to improve his teaching practice.


This story inspired me but also made me think. Teachers learn in many different ways. There is no magic formula that works for everyone. Observing excellent teachers may have had a big impact on him, but it appeared to have less impact on many others. So I kept wondering: what are the best ways to support the professional learning of teachers?

About a year ago I was in Shanghai, one of the world’s top performing school systems. I came across a surprising answer as to why their students are doing so well. Teachers spend about a third (!) of their working time learning together and collaborating with their colleagues. This is an interesting decision: class sizes are larger in Shanghai (35 or more students in each class, source) and therefore, teachers have fewer lessons each week. This creates more time for teachers, which they spend preparing lessons together with their colleagues, and participating in various professional learning programmes.

This lesson from Shanghai seems consistent with the results of the most recent international survey of teachers and headteachers (TALIS, 2013). The countries where learning outcomes have improved most rapidly tend to invest more in the professional development of their teachers. For example, in England, most teachers had attended courses and workshops, but relatively few had participated in research, observed teachers in other schools or taken qualification programmes. Overall, these participation figures in England are quite similar to international averages, but well below countries that invest more heavily in teachers’ professional learning (e.g. Estonia and Singapore, no comparable data exists on Shanghai).


Participation in different types of professional development activities (TALIS, 2013)

Investing in professional development is likely to pay off, but what is the best way of spending this time and money? In the same international survey (TALIS, 2013), teachers’ views on the impact of professional development activities were explored. Across all countries and almost all professional development activities, most teachers thought it had a positive impact on their teaching! For example, six out of ten teachers in England had attended professional development activities focused on improving knowledge and understanding of their subject field. Of all these people, nine out of ten thought this training had a moderate or large positive impact on their teaching.

This is interesting, but does it explain what kind of professional development is most effective? Professor Robert Coe: “We do not know a lot about the impact of teachers’ CPD on students’ learning outcomes, but what we do know suggests two things: that the right kind of CPD can produce big benefits for learners, and that most of the CPD undertaken by teachers is not this kind.” The table below summarises research on the criteria of highly effective CPD, as described in two recent reports (by CUREE and by Rob Coe).

Unfortunately, relatively few teachers have access to this sort of professional learning opportunities. According to the TALIS survey, one in three teachers in England had participated in collaborative learning activities or research with other teachers. One in five had taken part in CPD over an extended period of time (taking place on several occasions spread out over several weeks or months).

These questions were explored further in a survey of teachers conducted in England by V. Darleen Opfer and David Pedder of the University of Cambridge in 2010 (source). They asked teachers about the features of the professional development activities they had participated in over the previous 12 months. Here is what they found.


Features of CPD that teachers have access to in England (Opfer and Pedder, 2010)

It appears that most teachers have attended lectures or presentations, but relatively few have actively practised using pupil materials or engaged in extended problem solving. Opfer and Pedder conclude: “There is little indication that current CPD is seen as having an impact on raising standards or narrowing the achievement gap. This is despite the fact that the vast majority of teachers thought that CPD would have a positive impact on pupils’ learning and achievement.”

“There is little indication that current CPD is seen as having an impact on raising standards or narrowing the achievement gap.”

— V. Darleen Opfer and David Pedder

And so we are left with this fundamental challenge. Significant improvements in learning outcomes cannot be mandated by policymakers, they will happen only if teachers are able to improve their teaching practice in a meaningful way. This takes time and effort – there is no other way. Teachers are most likely to learn best when learning is sustained so that they can try out new practices and explore evidence of trying new things. Learning is likely to be more effective when it is collaborative, active, informed by research and supported by external networks.

This is not an easy recipe for success, but it is worth trying.


Reinvent teachers’ professional development

New and more effective models of teachers’ professional learning are needed. These have to take into account the challenging reality, including long working hours, the pressure of inspections and exams. Creative Generation is an organisation trying to reinvent teachers’ continuing professional development. We hope that our efforts contribute to teachers regaining a sense of professionalism and experiencing the beauty of learning in their classrooms more often.

Imagine for a minute that you are Andy Murray. You are a top player and a real professional. Your strength is in returning the serve really well and your backhand strike is great. But maybe you’re thinking you need to improve your forehand shot. What sort of training or professional development will enable you to achieve this? It’s probably a combination of focused practice, being attentive to your mistakes, and trying to get feedback from an expert coach. You might spend time analysing videos of tennis legends with the best forehand shot, as well as recordings of your own shots, to identify small steps for improvement.

Admittedly tennis and teaching are not exactly the same. However, both are complex skills. So why is professional learning for teachers so different? In a recent survey, 77% of teachers in England reported that they had attended in-school workshops or seminars. Most frequently, this involved listening to lectures or presentations (67%). Less than one in five teachers have been involved in more active forms of CPD such as practising the use of pupil materials (17%), extended problem-solving (9%) or demonstrating a lesson, unit or skill (6%, Opfer, 2010). Wouldn’t it be odd to ask Andy Murray to attend a lecture on forehand technique that involves little or no practice?

Teacher CPD needs to be reinvented, because most existing programmes have clear limitations. One off trainings or workshops are simply too short to have an impact on teacher practice. Whole school CPD sessions are often not relevant enough for many teachers. In order to be relevant and helpful, sessions should be active and ideally, subject-related. General sessions for all teachers are useful up to a point. It is important, for example, to know the main principles of formative assessment – the need to be specific and clear with feedback messages, or the importance of providing helpful feedback in manageable units, in order to avoid cognitive overload etc (Shute, 2007). These ideas are necessary but not sufficient to improve one’s teaching. What would be even more valuable is the opportunity for teachers to improve their knowledge of how pupils learn their subject best. For example, if a student is struggling to compare and simplify fractions, how do you provide useful suggestions that will move the learner forward? Unfortunately, surveys suggest that few teachers currently have access to practical and subject-specific professional development opportunities.

At Creative Generation, we’re trying to reinvent teacher CPD and make sure that more primary teachers have access to high-quality, affordable professional learning opportunities. What do we mean by high quality? Evidence suggests that CPD is likely to help teachers improve their practice and have a real impact on learning outcomes when the following criteria are met:

  • Intense – at least 15 hours (preferably 50) of professional learning
  • Sustained – over at least two terms
  • Content focused – allowing teachers to improve their knowledge of subject content and how students learn it
  • Active – teachers have opportunities to try new practices and discuss how they work
  • Supported – external feedback and networks are required to improve and sustain one’s practice
  • Evidence-based – promotes strategies supported by robust evaluation evidence (Coe, 2013)

Even if programmes are built upon a solid understanding of what makes teacher CPD effective, two challenges remain: time and motivation. Given the current climate of high-stakes testing and inspections, as well as the huge workload that primary teachers are experiencing, how will anyone find the time and motivation to engage with this?

Lack of time is the most important constraint. As the recent DFE survey indicated, primary classroom teachers work, on average, 59 hours per week (DfE, 2014). If teachers feel that CPD is irrelevant, it will be considered a waste of time. Any successful programme needs to be practical and relevant enough so that teachers feel they’re winning back time. One solution is to ask teachers to bring their lesson planning to the CPD sessions. This would enable teachers to collaborate on their planning and immediately implement the ideas they’ve learned during the trainings.

Motivation is the other major constraint. Without motivation, there cannot be effective learning. This is true for students as well as adults. Is there a solution to this? Unfortunately, there is no easy fix. Motivation depends on many complex factors. In case of teachers and their CPD, however, one big idea emerges. Teachers in England were asked a few years ago about the most important reasons for taking part in CPD. What were the two most crucial factors? Positive impact on pupils’ learning and improved achievement for pupils (Opfer, 2010). Therefore, teachers need the opportunity to learn relevant knowledge, practise the new skills, and ultimately improve their impact on pupils’ learning outcomes.

A couple of years ago I was in an English lesson taught by a friend of mine. In front of the classroom, a six-year-old boy was giving a speech. He could pick any topic, and the only requirement was that he had to speak, as loudly and clearly as possible, for one minute. By the way, English was not his first language and he had been learning it for less than a year. After about 30 seconds, he ran out of words. So he just stood there, arms crossed, until the minute was up. When he was done, his classmates began giving him feedback. They said a few things he had done well and some things he could perhaps improve. Finally, the teacher shared his comments. He reminded everyone that a couple of weeks before the same boy had been too scared to say anything in front of the class. He had just stood there and started crying. Now, even though this time he could not speak for the full minute, he had made huge progress. It was obvious that the teacher was immensely proud of the boy. The boy was still standing in front of the classroom, smiling.

Experiencing these moments when students have visibly learned and grown – this is the beauty of learning. We need to reinvent teachers’ professional learning and ensure that high-quality, affordable CPD enables more teachers to experience the beauty of learning more often.


The professional development programmes of Creative Generation are focused on improving learning outcomes in primary English and mathematics, especially problem solving, comprehension and critical thinking. If you’re interested in finding out more, please email me.

This article was originally published in ‘Primary Voice’.

Uutmoodi õppimine ja õpetamine

See artikkel ilmus Postimehes 11.03.2014.

Õppimine tuleb muuta mõtlemist, loovust ja koostööd arendavaks selleks, et parandada Eesti inimeste elukvaliteeti ning arendada oskusi, mida muutuval tööturul kõige enam hinnatakse.

Aastal 1999 alustasin õpinguid Oxfordi ülikooli esimesel kursusel. Alt laienevad püksid jalas, kahtlus hinges: kas ma saan hakkama? Esimesel nädalal selgus, et ma ei pea loenguid kartma. Eesti keskkoolis omandatud inglise keele oskusega suutsin toimuvat jälgida. Esseede kirjutamisega oli keerulisem. Minu eriala koosnes kolmest osast: majandus, politoloogia, filosoofia. Igal nädalal toimus kaks seminari, kus osalesid kaks tudengit ja õppejõud. Igaks seminariks tuli kirjutada üks arutlev essee, neli-viis lehekülge trükitud teksti. Esseega pidime näitama, et oleme teemast aru saanud, oma seisukohale jõudnud ning suudame seda ka argumenteeritult põhjendada. Eriti keeruliseks läks eksamitel. Kolme tunniga tuli käsitsi kirjutada kolm esseed, igaüks neli-viis lehekülge pikk. Teemad saime teada kohapeal. Ruttu tuli valida õige teema, 10–15 minuti jooksul oma seisukoht läbi mõelda ning siis kibekiiresti kirja panna. Minu kursusekaaslased, kes olid varem õppinud Inglise erakoolides, olid saanud analüütilist mõtlemist ja esseede kirjutamist palju rohkem harjutada…

See kogemus tõstatas minu jaoks küsimuse: milliste teadmiste, oskuste ja isikuomaduste arendamine on Eestis hariduses kõige tähtsam? Kas oskus analüütiliselt mõelda ning oma mõtteid selgelt väljendada (mida hinnatakse Oxfordis) või midagi muud? Olles vastanud küsimusele, mida peaks õppima, võiksime uurida järgmist küsimust: kuidas peaks õppimine ja õpetamine toimuma, et see oleks võimalikult tõhus?

Esmalt aga tunnistagem: meie stardipositsioon on väga hea. Eesti 15-aastaste õpilaste hulgas on kümnest üheksa omandanud baasoskused lugemises, matemaatikas ja loodusteadustes. Seda kinnitavad nii PISA testid kui ka mu isiklik kogemus. Mul on õnnestunud tänu oma tööle külastada koole mitmel pool Euroopas, Ameerikas ja Aasias. Eesti õpilased paistavad rahvusvahelises kontekstis silma heade baasteadmiste ja -oskustega. Meie haridussüsteemi tugevus on ka see, et tulemuste erinevused koolide vahel on väiksed.

See ei tähenda siiski, et me võiksime ennast imetlema jääda. Aastal 2000 olid Soome õpilased oma tulemuste poolest maailmas tipus. See vähendas haridusjuhtide ja õpetajate motivatsiooni edasi areneda. 12 aastaga on Soomes nende õpilaste osakaal, kes ei omanda baasoskusi, kasvanud poole suuremaks. Tipptulemustega õpilaste osakaal on kahanenud ligi poole võrra. Samal ajal on mitmed teised riigid, nende hulgas näiteks Poola, oma tulemusi parandanud ning jõudnud samale tasemele Soome ja Eestiga.

Mis on see kõige olulisem, mille õppimisele ja arendamisele peaksime Eestis keskenduma? Meie uues elukestva õppe strateegias rõhutatakse, et haridus peab tagama igale inimesele väärika eneseteostuse võimalused. Selleks on vaja, et kõigil – nii lastel kui täiskasvanutel – oleks võimalik kogu elu jooksul õppida, vastavalt vajadustele ja võimetele. Strateegias on rõhutatud vajadust arendada loovust ja ettevõtlikkust, oskust analüütiliselt mõelda ja probleeme lahendada, teha meeskonnatööd ning omandada digipädevusi.

Sellised arengusuunad on minu arvates mõistlikud. Kui iga inimene tahab ennast arendada ja tal on selleks kvaliteetsed võimalused, siis on see parim viis, kuidas parandada elukvaliteeti Eestis. Ühelt poolt aitab see meil hoida neid tugevusi, mis meil on. Meie koolisüsteemi baasnäitajad on head ning keskkond on puhas (värske õhk, ligipääs puutumata loodusele).

Teisalt aitab see parandada meie elukvaliteedi kitsaskohti: sissetulekud, tervisenäitajad, eluga rahulolu. Sissetulekud kasvavad siis, kui töötajad saavad oma ülesannetega paremini hakkama ning kasvab ettevõtete tootlikkus ühe inimese kohta (praegu on see 70 protsenti Euroopa keskmisest). Kui inimesed on targemad, oskavad nad teha teadlikumaid valikuid oma tervise eest hoolitsemisel (Eesti täiskasvanutest on 51 protsenti enda hinnangul terved, võrreldes OECD keskmise näitajaga, mis on 69 protsenti). Subjektiivne rahulolu eluga on Eestis võrreldes paljude teiste riikidega samuti väiksem. Kuidas teha selliseid valikuid, et igas päevas oleks rohkem positiivseid kogemusi ja emotsioone ning vähem negatiivseid? Ma usun, et ka siin võib elukestev õpe teatud rolli mängida.

Teine põhjus, miks haridus­strateegias kirjeldatud suunamuutus on vajalik, peitub tööjõuturus. Millised on need oskused, mida tööandjad kõige enam väärtustavad, kuid millest noortel jääb vajaka? Konsultatsioonifirma McKinsey avaldas hiljuti üleeuroopalise uuringu tulemused. Tööandjate arvates on noortel kõige enam puudu oskusest analüütiliselt mõelda ja probleeme lahendada, koostööoskusest, suulise kommunikatsiooni oskusest ja töökusest.

Paljuski on tegu samade oskustega, mida on meie riiklikus õppekavas ja igasugustes hariduspoliitilistes dokumentides juba üle kümne aasta rõhutatud. Põhiline küsimus on, kuidas neid ideid paremini ellu viia. Vajadus selleks on suur. Nimetatud PISA testis selgus, et vaid 15 protsenti Eesti õpilastest oskab lahendada keerukamaid matemaatilisi probleeme (maailma tipptase: Shanghais 55 protsenti). Kaheksa protsenti Eesti õpilastest suudab tundmatut teksti lugedes seda mõista ja kriitiliselt analüüsida. Mõnes riigis on selliste õpilaste osakaal kaks-kolm korda suurem.

Kuigi meie stardipositsioon on hea, on muutused hariduses siiski vajalikud. Esiteks selleks, et parandada elukvaliteeti Eestis, ning teiseks, et arendada oskusi, mida muutuval tööturul kõige enam hinnatakse. Kuidas seda teha?

Tänu paljude valdkondade teadlaste tööle on viimase 20–30 aastaga tõestust leidnud mitu põhimõtet, mille rakendamine õppimise kvaliteeti parandab. Kui nende hulgast välja noppida üks, vast ehk kõige olulisem idee, siis see võiks olla «õppijakeskne lähenemine». Õppija (olgu tegu lapse või täiskasvanuga) õpib kõige paremini siis, kui ülesanne on talle parasjagu keeruline, arvestades tema varasemaid teadmisi ja oskusi. Tal peavad olema vajalikud taustateadmised (muidu saab lühiajaline mälu üle koormatud ja see takistab mõtlemist). Ülesande lahendamine peab nõudma parajat pingutust. Kui ta tunneb, et suudab selle ülesandega hakkama saama, siis see motiveerib õppijat; vastasel juhul on õppimine pärsitud.

Kuigi nende põhimõtete rakendamine ei ole lihtne, näitab paljude koolide ja mõnede riikide kogemus, et see on siiski võimalik. Õnneks on suur hulk kasulikku infot tõhusa õppimise kohta interneti kaudu kättesaadav. Väga hea lühikokkuvõttena võin soovitada Daniel Willinghami artiklit «Why Don’t Students Like School?» ja sama pealkirjaga raamatut.

Artur Taevere on Creative Generationi asutaja ja juht, ta osales elukestva õppe strateegia väljatöötamise juhtkomisjonis.

Learning to solve problems


“Robots – memorising formulas, regurgitating facts. Pretending that we understood when we didn’t have a clue. Playing by the rules of the examiner. That’s before we met Mr G, who rescued us from the education system that failed us all. He was a teacher who relished making you think, and not telling you the answer. The one whose enthusiasm was contagious.”

This quote is from last year’s ‘My Education’ report. Could a teacher hope for higher praise from a pupil? She says that because of her teacher, she has discovered the beauty of mathematics and learned how to think.

Thinking is not easy. Teaching pupils how to think is much harder than getting them to remember things. “People are naturally curious, but we are not naturally good thinkers; unless the cognitive conditions are right, we will avoid thinking.” This is one of the main findings from cognitive science, as summarised by Daniel Willingham in his book “Why Don’t Students Like School?”

Cognitive scientists have tested this with numerous experiments, concluding that the brain is far better suited to support the ability to see and move, as opposed to think. For example, consider this paradox. “A teacher tells the students that there will be an unexpected test next week, but the test will be a surprise. They will not know the day of the test until it actually happens.” Can you figure out when the test will be?

I was asked this many years ago, when I was being interviewed for a place to study at university. The interviewer, a charming, eccentric man – chain-smoked through the interview, and was constantly drinking this strong, smoky tea – encouraged me to think, step-by-step. Could the test be on Friday? Why not? If not Friday, then how about Thursday? With some guiding questions and encouragement, I eventually managed to solve the paradox. (Click here to read more about this paradox.)

The value of problem solving

But if teaching how to think is hard, is it worth the effort? Many educators will probably agree that the ability to think is valuable in itself. Thinking will enable us fulfil our unique human potential. However, beyond this intrinsic value, thinking is also valuable in practical terms.

Consider the chart below: the number of jobs in the US economy that require working collaboratively to solve non-routine problems grew dramatically from 1960 to 2000. (Source: The Learning Society report by Cisco.)

Nonroutine tasks.jpg

In the original research paper, a task was defined as routine if “it can be accomplished by machines following explicit programmed rules”. For example, moving a windshield into place on an assembly line, and many other tasks where you do the same thing over and over again. As is evident form the graph, these tasks have been declining most rapidly since the 1980s. In contrast, nonroutine interactive tasks have been growing quickly. This is where you have to solve new problems, while interacting with other people.

There is nothing radically new about the so-called 21st century skills such as critical thinking, collaboration, creativity etc. However, the reality is that far more people, compared to just 20-30 years ago, need to master these skills to earn a living.

McKinsey & Co recently conducted a major survey across Europe. The idea was to find out which skills are valued by employers but missing among young people. In most countries surveyed, the picture was quite similar. Pretty consistently, among the top four missing skills were: problem solving and analysis, teamwork, spoken communication, and work ethic.

Somewhat surprisingly, lack of skills was perceived as a less urgent issue in the United Kingdom compared to Germany, France and other European countries. Yet, just a few months ago, there were 940,000 unemployed 16 to 24 year olds in the United Kingdom. Youth unemployment rate was 21 percent. Young people need better skills (in the UK, especially vocational skills) to match the needs of employers. This is a very complex problem to solve – which in itself is further evidence about the importance of collaborative problem solving.

Problem solving in mathematics

How can one learn to solve problems like the one I was asked in my university interview? Let us start by exploring how problem solving can be taught and learned in the context of one subject, mathematics, and then look at other subjects. The following recommendations are based on a practice guide published by What Works Clearinghouse in the US. After careful review of numerous research papers, the panel of experts put together a list of recommendations to teach problem solving in mathematics in grades 4-8.

Recommendation 1: Prepare problems and use them in whole-class instruction

The idea here is to find both routine and non-routine problems for students to solve. Non-routine meaning problems for “which there is not a predictable, well-rehearsed approach or pathway explicitly suggested by the task, task instructions, or a worked-out example”. A couple of useful links: sample problems can be found from the Illuminations site, the Math Forum, practice problems from PISA etc. When selecting which problems to use, it is important to ensure that students will understand the problem. If they don’t know the context or language, then their problem solving capacity is taken up by trying to understand what is meant by the question. Teachers can anticipate these issues, and select problems with familiar contexts. Also, it may be helpful to reword problems, using words that are connected to pupils’ previous experiences.

It is also helpful to consider students’ previous knowledge of mathematical content when selecting problem-solving tasks. Problems aligned with the current unit often require skills taught in previous years. It may be useful to review skills learned earlier, which are needed to solve the problem. Struggling students are likely to find it especially useful.

Recommendation 2: Assist students in monitoring and reflecting on the problem-solving process.

Another useful strategy is to provide students with a list of prompts that help them think during problem solving. They can be in the form of questions or simple tasks lists. (See a couple of examples below, from the same practice guide.)

Problem solving prompts.jpg

There are a few different ways in which prompts can be shared with pupils. They can be posted on the board, included on worksheets, listed on index cards. In addition, teachers can play the helpful role of modelling (thinking aloud) how to monitor and reflect on the problem-solving process.

Recommendation 3: Teach students how to use visual representations.

This is another simple technique with robust research evidence. Selecting (appropriate) visual representations is likely to be very helpful. For example, schematic diagrams are useful for ratio and proportion problems, percent bars for percent problems, strip diagrams for comparison and fraction problems etc.

Here is an example from the same practice guide. “There are 4 adults and 2 children who need to cross the river. A small boat is available that can hold either 1 adult or 1 or 2 small children. Everyone can row the boat. How many one-way trips does it take for all of them to cross the river?”

I quite like this first visual representation.

Problem solving river1.jpg

It’s a nice little drawing, but the only issue is that it lacks relevant details for actually solving the problem and it includes some irrelevant details. This next one does a better job.

Problem solving river2.jpg

Recommendation 4: Expose students to multiple problem-solving strategies.

Evidence suggests that if you know how to use multiple strategies, you are likely to be more successful. That’s why it is important for teachers to provide instruction in multiple strategies, sometimes even using unsuccessful strategies. This will enable pupils understand that in some situations one needs to try more than one approach to solve a problem. Providing students with worked examples so that they can compare multiple strategies next to each other is another useful practice. This is an important takeaway: research has shown that studying worked examples is a time-efficient way of learning multiple problem-solving strategies.

Recommendation 5: Help students recognise and articulate mathematical concepts and notation.

Mathematical concepts and notation, once pupils are comfortable with them, will help them think about the problem. As always, one should pay attention to pupils’ prior knowledge of concepts and notation, and start from there. When observing the way pupils are solving the problem, teachers can look for opportunities to call out when they use mathematical concepts and notation. Another idea is to use small-group activities so that pupils can discuss the process how they had solved a problem in a worked example, and importantly, the reasoning behind each step.

The full practice guide on mathematical problem solving includes more detailed guidance, along with numerous examples, and ways to overcome common roadblocks in implementing these ideas. This very helpful guide can be downloaded here. Besides mathematics resources, What Works Clearinghouse also includes practice guides and helpful reports and reviews on many other subjects.

Transferring the skill of problem-solving

As we have seen, research has some helpful suggestions how to develop problem solving in mathematics. But is this skill transferable? If students become proficient in mathematical problem solving, will they be able to solve problems in other subjects?

Transferring problem-solving skills to different domains is difficult. In a wonderful article (“Critical thinking: Why Is It So Hard to Teach?”), Daniel Willingham reviews evidence about the impact of various critical thinking programmes and suggests some reasons why their success has been limited. Critical thinking and problem solving are not general skills that can be applied to any situation, after they have been learned. “The processes of thinking are intertwined with the content of thought (that is, domain knowledge). Thus, if you remind a student to “look at an issue from multiple perspectives” often enough, he will learn that he ought to do so, but if he doesn’t know much about an issue, he can’t think about it from multiple perspectives.” Willingham cites that programmes including puzzles like those found on IQ tests report gains in IQ scores, but no significant gains in solving other types of problems.

Does this mean that problem-solving and critical thinking should not be taught? Well, they can be taught and learned, but not easily. The fact that more than 55 percent of students in Shanghai who took part in PISA 2012 were judged to be highly proficient in mathematical problem solving should give us encouragement. This compares to 12 percent of students across OECD and 13 percent of students in the UK who are able to reach this level.

As Willingham concludes in the article mentioned above, there are thinking strategies that, once learned, make critical thinking more likely. This does not mean that the ability to solve problems or think critically will then automatically translate to other domains. It does only if one has sufficient knowledge in the other domain and sufficient practice in using these thinking skills with different types of problems.

Helping your pupils become critical thinkers and problems-solvers is a worthwhile aim. With a lot of attention to domain knowledge and smart, diligent practice over a long period of time, it should be an achievable goal.

If dogs can learn it, then human beings can too. This is an actual advert I saw in the park 🙂

Problem Solving For Dogs.jpg

Better start now

This happened about two weeks ago. I get a phone call from my wife a few minutes after she left home on her bike. “I was hit by a car. The guy just didn’t see me.” My heart sank.

This was the third time in the past couple of years that someone very close to me had been in a cycling accident. Luckily, my wife, my sister and my best friend all survived and are doing fine.

Moments like this have reminded me: whatever I really want to do in life, I better start now.

I left my job at Teach For All in December. In many ways, I had the best job you could imagine. Together with an awesome team, we were supporting the professional development of teachers and school leaders around the world. We were making a difference, and we had fun. My colleagues were some of the nicest, smartest and most hard-working people I’ve ever met. Plus, I was able to travel the world, visit some pretty incredible schools in about a dozen countries. A couple of months ago, we were in Shanghai, the world’s top-performing school system. I’ve been to some really innovative schools, in places like the US and India, showing today what the future of education will look like. As well as many amazing schools up and down the country here in England. I think I learned more in my previous job than I could have done anywhere else.

(Here are some of the schools I have visited in the past 5 years.)


So why leave a fantastic job and jump into the unknown, by starting a new education charity? Is it because of the freedom that being an entrepreneur gives you (being your own boss!), or the hope of making a mark on the world, or making more money? (Just for the record, I have taken a big pay cut and don’t yet have a secure salary for this year.)

I think most importantly, it’s about seeing a need and feeling that something can be done about it.

Every morning I hear news about South Sudan, or youth unemployment in Europe, or the popularity of Golden Dawn in Greece. Which makes me wonder: how will our complex global and local challenges be solved if the next generation is not smarter and more creative than we are?

I’m thinking about all of my friends in education who are working really hard, many of them making huge personal sacrifices. They’re making a difference, no doubt about it. But despite their best efforts, the challenge of improving the quality of education is still huge. Across the OECD, more than one in five 15-year-old students have not mastered basic skills in mathematics. Fewer than one in ten can understand and critically evaluate an unfamiliar text (PISA 2012).

So what can I do to support schools and help make learning more effective? What would help improve academic achievement while ensuring that students are learning the knowledge, skills and personal attributes they most need for life? Can this be done without expecting a super-human effort from teachers and school leaders?

There are no magical solutions. However, as Professor Robert Coe explains in his excellent essay (text, video), high quality professional development for teachers can make a real difference on student learning. A CUREE / Pearson report on research evidence highlights the sort of professional development likely to improve student outcomes: it needs to be collaborative, supported by specialist expertise, focused on aspirations for students, sustained over time and exploring evidence from trying new things.

At Creative Generation, we will be piloting a new, intensive professional development programme for teachers. 10 days per year, 4 teachers per school. Engaging with education research, trying out new practices, evaluating how the new teaching approaches have an impact on student learning, reflecting on what works (or doesn’t) and why. Over time, supporting the professional development of colleagues in your school.

I decided to leave an amazing job and start a new education charity to tackle a really complex challenge. And, of course, because of the prize. Seeing students fulfil their potential and become positive contributors to the world. Seeing a new creative generation emerge.

On excellent teaching and human excellence

Just a minute

Spending a week in Mumbai during the Synergies workshop and a day in Pune – the other city where Teach For India places its fellows – helped me clarify one of the big questions I’ve been asking myself for a long time.

Four years ago we were setting up Noored Kooli, the Estonian programme within Teach For All. Among the group of founders, none of us had been teachers. Once we had recruited some of our country’s brightest young people into the programme, we were struggling with the question – what do we expect them to do in the classrooms? If we want them to be excellent teachers, then what do we really mean by excellent teaching? We just did not know…

I still don’t know, but being part of the Teach For All community, I’m sure we’re getting closer to having an answer to this question. A couple of experiences in Mumbai and Pune helped me clarify my own thinking on this.

Aditya Natraj, founder of the Gandhi fellowship, facilitated a discussion on personal transformation. The key theme that connected various aspects of the talk was ‘human excellence’. One of the definitions really stuck with me- human excellence means becoming the best that I can be. When I was started to think about this in the context of teaching, the obvious question was – what does this mean for a teacher? Does it not mean that we should help all of our students become the best that they can be? If we wanted to do just that, what exactly should we do?

It seems a big part of the answer has to do with ensuring that every child learns to the very best of their ability. In almost all the classes that I have visited recently there are some students – and sometimes a lot of them – who have fallen behind their peers in terms of academic achievement. Unless there is a teacher who inspires them to be the best that they can be, many of them will have very few opportunities in their future, both educational and job opportunities. Unless there is a teacher who believes in them, many will continue to have low aspirations and therefore will never become the best that they could be.

Now that I’ve returned to our office in London, I’ve been thinking about how some Teach For India teachers were helping their students become a little bit better every day. I felt that some of the core values I saw in the classrooms in Mumbai and Pune were very helpful for this. For example:

Work hard.
Be nice.
Try. Try. Try.
Think and question.

And one of my favourite ideas I came across in a Mumbai classroom: Grace under pressure.

Above is a picture of a student who spoke no English a few months ago, and now had to speak for one minute – in English – on a topic of his own choice. Last time he had the same task a few weeks ago, he did not have the courage to say a single sentence, and tears came to his eyes. This time I witnessed him speaking for about 30 seconds and then bravely standing there until the minute was over. When the minute was over, his teachergave him a huge celebration to congratulate him on the progress he had made over the past few weeks! And you could see how happy he was about it!

I was in this classroom thinking that if students become comfortable in situations where they feel a lot of pressure, this will be hugely valuable to them in their future lives. That will help them face difficulties, either at school, at work or at home, and have the courage to overcome them.

The incredible thing was that students in this class had made, on average, 2 years of academic progress in the past 7 months! So clearly, it was a class that was focused on values and achievement. And clearly there was a teacher that inspired his students to be the best that they can be.

I’d love to hear reactions from everyone – what do you think is the role of human excellence in teaching? What are the challenges and joys of helping students become the best that they can be?