Geoff Petty - September is the time to experiment with your teaching

What are you waiting for, asks Geoff Petty? It’s a new year and the perfect time to adopt the advice of Professor Dylan Wiliam and experiment! Geoff Petty is the author of ‘Teaching Today’, ‘Evidenced Based Teaching’ and ‘How To Teach Even Better. 

Here we go again! And this time of year is perfect for a little experimentation with new teaching methods. Your students don’t know what to expect from you, so why not exploit this freedom? You’ll be amazed by what you can get away with if you do it with confidence and style. But what to experiment with? 

I’m a great fan of Professor Dylan Wiliam, and his latest book, Embedded Formative Assessment, is a stunner. It has some brilliant teaching methods for you to try. Formative assessment has a gigantic effect on student learning and achievement and benefits the weakest learners most. But, as a profession, we don’t do it well. 

Prof Wiliam’s methods are usually easy to use, and require your students to work harder than you do, which I think should be our goal for this year. The first chapter is a gem, making the case that the best way to improve our education system is to improve teaching. 

The evidence Prof Wiliam quotes is overwhelming, and anyone interested in improving education should read it. Professors Paul Black and Wiliam have dropped the term “Assessment for Learning”, though they invented it, because it has become corrupted by the Government’s education department purloining the term to describe summative practices that have nothing to do with formative assessment, or with Black and Wiliam’s careful reading of research. 

If we and our student teachers got formative assessment right, then students would learn about twice as much as they do from conventional teaching. So try these powerful methods, talk about your experiences with colleagues and adapt them until they work. 

You’ll need to use them five times to discover whether they will work for you, and about 25 times to get them working 80% effectively. Contrary to popular opinion, Prof Wiliam shows there is strong evidence that education has improved very markedly over the past 50 years. Students do much better on objective assessments such as IQ tests.  

Fifty years ago only the top 15% did as well as an average student does now on the same test. So standards have not slipped. Instead, expectations of parents, employers and 

governments have risen faster than education has improved. I feel a letter to the Daily Mail coming on. In the meantime, happy experimenting! 


1. Play catch-up. 

Imagine you have 14 lessons to teach a topic or unit: 

  1. Use 12 lessons to teach the topic. 
  2. At the end of the 12th lesson give students a short diagnostic test or quiz. 
  3. The test/quiz papers are not marked by the teacher, who instead looks them over to discover what students find difficult. 
  4. Lessons 13 and 14 are used for remedial activity on the difficulties noticed in points above. In this way, 85% of time is used for teaching, ending in a short test, while the other 15% is used for remedial work to fix weaknesses discovered by the test. 


2. Use exemplar work. 

  1. A task is set, and students work alone to produce draft work 
  2. The teacher collects papers, and secretly awards a provisional grade to each student. No comments are made on the work. The teacher chooses the three best pieces of work (exemplars) and photocopies these. Students get their own work back, unmarked, along with copies of the three exemplars. 
  3. Students work in groups to use the exemplars to decide on assessment criteria for the task 
  4. Students redraft their own work, and resubmit. They are not allowed to simply copy the exemplars 


3. Peer assessment of work. 

  1. Students are given a design brief and working alone generate five or six rough ideas. 
  2. Students decide on their best idea 
  3. Students swap their draft ideas with those of another student, and secretly choose the best idea presented by the other student 
  4. Work is handed back to the owner, and discussion follows, especially if the choices are different 


4. Students write their own assessment questions. 

After a topic has been completed, students write assessment questions, along with some means of assessing their answers, such as assessment criteria and mark scheme. The students don’t mark each other’s questions, but the teacher can grade each student’s questions and assessment guidance. 


5. Use peer assessment to improve answers without a model or criteria 

  1. Students work individually on a practice exam test or quiz 
  2. Students work in groups of three or four and share their unmarked papers 
  3. Students try to create the best composite answer from their papers 
  4. Groups share their answers with the rest of the class 


6. C3B4M 

While students are working in class they are asked to consult three peers before asking the teacher for help: (‘see three before me’ = C3B4M) 


7. Traffic-light cups. 

Each student is given three cardboard cups: red, amber, and green. As the lesson progresses, each student shows the level of their understanding by displaying the appropriate coloured cup on top on the desk in front of them: 

  • Red: I don’t understand what is going on 
  • Amber: I sort of get it 
  • Green: I understand it well, and could explain it to others 

The teacher can say to a student displaying an amber cup “what don’t you understand?”, and then ask a student displaying a green cup to answer the student’s question. When the teacher judges it necessary, because there are some amber or red cups being displayed, she says: “Okay, red cups over here with me, those with an amber cup find a student with a green cup and ask them for help.”